Posted by: GeekHiker | August 31, 2009

Distant Smoke

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve driven up Highway 2 into the Angeles National Forest over the years.  So many that I suppose I could probably drive it in my sleep, it seems I know the twists and turns of the road so well.

Don’t worry, though, I won’t.  The drop-offs on the side of the road are a bit steep, sometimes dropping 1,000 feet down a 60 degree slope.

At the Red Box trailhead, the Mt. Wilson Road splits off to the southeast.  Five miles up that road sit a massive array of transmitters, cellphone towers, LAX ATC equipment and, at road’s end, the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory.  Every time I passed the turnoff, over many years, I thought to myself “I should go out there and tour the Observatory.”

A couple of weeks ago, I did.

I put the cooler in the car, picked up a sandwich at 7-11 (those market fresh ones are actually pretty good), and headed to the top.  My plan was to do a short hike, break for lunch, then take the Observatory tour.

Mt. Wilson 01
Trail near the telescope

The hike didn’t go so well.  Turns out the peak I was going to bag had been closed off and replaced by a cell phone transmitter array, the road/trail blocked by a chain-link gate.

That’s what I get for picking a trail in an old hiking guide, I suppose.

So I trudged back uphill to the truck, sat in the bed, and ate lunch while reading my book.  Then I took the tour, which was a mixed bag.  The facilities were fascinating.  The tour guide… well, let’s just say he spoke, um, at length.

Mt. Wilson 02
Exterior of the 100-inch telescope

100 inch telescope photomerge
The massive 100-inch telescope

Then I headed home.  Not the most exciting day, not really worth blogging, and hence the reason that I didn’t.

But I bring it up now because I spent last weekend watching the massive Station Fire eat its way through the forest, heading towards Mt. Wilson and threatening the facilities there.

And it’s just weird to think that I was up there on a quiet day just the weekend before.  Seeing the fire creep closer, it’s hard not to wonder if the facility might go despite the firefighters best efforts, and to wonder “geez, what if I was on the actual very last tour?”

The telescopes themselves are probably safe, being pretty much all metal and built to withstand some fires.  A lot of the outbuildings though, and especially the homes of those that live there, would not.

The Station Fire has burned, as of this writing, 134 164 square miles.  Not acres, mind you, as fires are often measured.  Square miles. It’s threatening not just the Observatory, but communities on the south, west, and north, heading towards the 14 freeway.  On the maps, it looks like a good quarter of the forest has been burned through.

The L.A. Times has been keeping an updated map of the fire, and the scale is amazing.

I’ve never seen a fire quite like this.  Usually fires are driven by high winds, but winds are light or non-existent right now.  So instead of the fire burning in a certain direction, it’s simply spread in all directions across the forest.

And without winds, the fire’s massive plume of smoke has risen 20,000 feet into the sky, looking for all the world like giant summertime thunderheads.  I didn’t manage to get any pictures, though you can find those on the L.A. Times website as well.  (If anyone in LA has one that I could use here, full credit given, I would greatly appreciate.)

A book I have on Fire in California has a fascinating section explaining the different levels of fighting fires.  It’s not as simple as just putting water on it.  Put in terms of flame length (defined as “the average maximum length along the axis of a flame; directly related to fire intensity”), the breakdown goes like this:

0-4 Feet of flame length – Hand crews can work to build a fire line in front of the fire; the fire burns to the line and is extinguished due to lack of fuel

4-8 Feet of flame length – Heavy equipment, such as bulldozers, are the only safe way to build a fire line

8-11 feet of flame length – Requires helicopters and planes to drop water or retardant to slow the spread of the fire

Over 11 feet of flame length – No fire suppression is effective.  The amount of energy being released is so great that no amount of water or retardant has any measurable effect.

Fire crews have been reporting flame lengths of over 100 feet with this fire.

(And if you ever hear anyone say “why can’t they just pour water on it?”, now you know why.)

It’ll be days before the fire is finally put out (as of tonight the estimate is September 15th).  Homes have been lost.  And, worse, lives, as two firefighters perished when their vehicle rolled off a road.

The cause is still under investigation; rumor has it that it might have been arson.  Disturbing, to say the least.

As for the forest itself, as sad as I am to see the damage, I think I’ve grown more at ease with the fact that this is how these forests work.  Most of the brush up there hadn’t burned in over forty years, and some of it hasn’t burned in 100. If anything, this fire was overdue and not wholly unexpected.

I hear people talking as well about the wildlife losses, but wildlife has been around fires for thousands of years and have adapted pretty well.  In the ’88 Yellowstone blazes, for example, 345 elk perished.  Not a small number, to be sure, but from a resident population of 40,000 it wasn’t enough to have too much of an effect on the health of the herd.

If anything it is we who suffer more.  We who build permanent structures in areas that have fires, and sometimes those structures are lost.

Those losses are sad as well.  Some people think that it’s just “rich folk” who have cabins up there, but often the properties are small grandfathered cabins, not expensive mansions.  And, whatever the case, it’s someone’s home.

As I said, though, the forest itself is not something that I find myself worrying about too much.  Yes, it will look like the moon for a while.  Yes some favorite spots of mine have burned.  Yes, some trails on the hikes page will be closed for a good long time.  The trees in the photo at the top of this page are most likely blackened stumps now.

Still, I remember when the Secret Spot burned a couple of years ago.  (For those unfamiliar, read this post.)

And, as these things do, it came back.  The Angeles will as well.



  1. ** The first picture reminds me of the scene in Fellowship of the Rings (when the hobbits were trying to escape from the ringwraiths (?)). Great shot!

    ** “And, whatever the case, it’s someone’s home.” — I like that. Rich or poor, someone put their heart and efforts into building/maintaining it and it doesn’t make it less sad when it’s lost just because it belongs to someone with more disposable income.

    ** Despite the distressing and tragic consequences (and RIP to the firefighters), forest fires are sort of Nature’s way of self-cleansing, IF they happen naturally. But arson? *shudders*

  2. I know it will come back, but it still breaks my heart. And I know a lot of animals will make it out okay but I cannot stand the thought of them fleeing. I hated seeing a picture of a coyote wandering a street near my parents’ house, likely displaced because of the fire. I know this is nature’s way and that it would have gone up perhaps even if someone didn’t ignite it. I know we are lucky that there aren’t Santa Anas blowing.

    But it pains my eyes and my insides to watch the flames lap up every ridge of these mountains. The home I grew up in is safe, but it feels like the bigger “home around that home” is being destroyed. It’s truly surreal.

    I have lots of pictures. If we were Facebook friends, I could connect you with some great ones my brother took while actually fighting the fire above La Crescenta.

  3. Thanks for writing this post by the way. And I’m glad you got up to the observatory before this all happened.

  4. I don’t miss the fires. Tonight I heard an estimate of September 8 so maybe they’re getting a better handle on it. I sure hope so.

  5. Glad to hear you’re okay. My first thought when I came out of my thesis cave and heard “LA wildfires” was of you.

  6. If you had a tilt lens, the telescope exterior would occupy roughly the same width at top and bottom (changing the perspective).

    Geek toys rule! but sadly, my splurge of the month was on goretex shoes.

  7. Whatever happened to the arsonists from the last round of fires? It’s such a shame that there’s no punishment in the world that would compensate victims (individuals and the state) for the damage done.

    It’s awful to see something so beautiful destroyed.

  8. I love that pic of the trees on the trail, like they are guarding it and whoever walks on it. Beautiful. I immediately thought of your previous story of the fires and loved how you were able to go back and still see beauty in that spot.

  9. K – Those trees are, most likely, gone now. Yeah, a lot of the cabins are old ones that were built back before there were even roads in the area, and they’re not mansions by any means. I should post some photos. As for the self-cleaning, that’s true. The hard part is that with suppression for so many years, the fuel-load out there is much greater than it should be.

    Mel Heth – One of the things I was reading about Yellowstone was that the deaths (especially over the winter with the lack of food sources) actually left more food for the predators, who always have the smallest numbers and the most difficult time keeping populations up. So, weirdly, it’s beneficial to segments of the forest population that struggle the most.

    Mel Heth – You’re welcome.

    Homer-Dog – Who would? Of course, the grasslands out there used to burn quite a lot as well, back in the day.

    Ms. Behaviour – Thanks

    M4891 – LOL, need a new camera first…

    Dingo – Don’t know if they ever caught them. Arson is a really difficult thing to catch someone on. (Actually, in this case, it might go beyond arson to manslaughter due to the deaths resulting from the fire.) Besides, it could have been something as careless as a cigarette tossed from a car window.

    CMACC – Thanks. Most likely, though, in the effort to save the Observatory, those same trees were burned, either by the fire or by the backfire lit by the fire crews. 😦

  10. WOW. 😦

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