‘Knocking on our door’: Wildfire closing in on historic California observatory

A Southern California wildfire was roaring toward the historic Mount Wilson Observatory on Tuesday as an unprecedented fire season continued to rage across much of the West Coast, officials said.

The Bobcat Fire was within 500 feet of the observatory in Los Angeles County, which was founded in 1904 and once had some of the largest operational telescopes in the world, the U.S. Forest Service said shortly after 12 p.m.

“The #BOBCATFIRE is knocking on our door,” the observatory tweeted Monday night, noting that all personnel had been evacuated.

#Bobcatfire crews are actively engaged in suppressing a spot fire now approx. 500-1,000 acres that has crossed Hwy 2. Firing operations to protect Mt. Wilson continue down to the southernmost line towards Spanish Canyon. Additionally, near Hwy 2 (Bobcat Cyn) the fire is active. pic.twitter.com/jT762H4Ppr

— Angeles_NF (@Angeles_NF) September 15, 2020

Images tweeted by the service Tuesday showed a massive plume of smoke rising from the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, where the observatory is on a roughly 5,700-foot peak.

The fire, which ignited Sept. 6, had grown to more than 41,000 acres by Tuesday, the forest service said. Nearly 1,100 personnel were fighting the blaze.

The service said a C-130 aircraft was dropping thousands of gallons of retardant Tuesday afternoon to halt the fire’s spread. An image tweeted by the observatory showed a line of wildland firefighters crossing a suspension bridge from the century-old 100-inch Hooker telescope.

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“We give our sincerest thanks to the firefighters who are on the ground defending our observatory as well as the pilots flying aircraft for fire suppression,” the observatory said.

The observatory is where pioneering astronomer Edwin Hubble showed in 1925 that the Milky Way is one of many galaxies. Four years later, Hubble was at Mount Wilson when he confirmed that the universe is still expanding.

The Bobcat Fire is one of 25 major fires in California. A record 3.2 million acres have burned in California this year, and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. Twenty-five people have died, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Butte County, where the Camp Fire killed 85 people two years ago in the state’s deadliest wildfire on record — and where 15 have died since a powerful off-shore wind event intensified the North Complex Fire last week — officials reported some progress Tuesday and said that no new humans were found.

But the communities of Feather Falls, Berry Creek and Brush Creek suffered “substantial” damage, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed, the officials said.

Ron Bravo, the deputy operations section chief working the fire response, said firefighters have been working hard on containment lines to keep the fire from spreading to the town of Paradise, which was devastated by the Camp Fire, and other nearby communities.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to be able to have our lines in place and not have to worry about Paradise or Concow anywhere within the next seven days,” he said.

The North Complex West Zone was at more than 77,300 acres and was 29 percent contained; the overall North Complex has burned more than 273,000 acres and was 34 percent contained.

A cold front expected for later this week will bring cooler temperatures, National Weather Service incident meteorologist Dan Borsum said.

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State officials and experts have blamed climate change and a build up of dried-out vegetation for the dozens of fires that have scorched the state.

Massive blazes have also raced across the Pacific Northwest, destroying towns and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

Meteorologists said Tuesday that a haze settling over a wide swath of the East Coast was smoke that had made its way east from the fires.

Tim Stelloh

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News based in California.

Image: Phil helselPhil Helsel

Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.

The Associated Press

contributed.

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