Huge wildfire in Southern California threatens historic observatory

Smoke rises near Mount Wilson Observatory during the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 14, 2020. Picture taken September 14, 2020.
Smoke rises near Mount Wilson Observatory during the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 14, 2020. Picture taken September 14, 2020. REUTERS - MARIO ANZUONI

A major fire that has been raging outside Los Angeles for more than a week threatened to engulf a historic observatory and billion-dollar broadcast towers on Tuesday as firefighters struggled to contain the flames.


The so-called Bobcat Fire was within 500 feet (150 meters) from the 116-year-old Mt. Wilson Observatory, the US Forest Service said in a tweet, while fire officials said crews were in place "ready to receive the fire."

Officials at the observatory said in a tweet late Monday that all personnel had been evacuated as the fire was "knocking on our door."

Firefighters battling the blaze had made slight headway in recent days in trying to control the flames that erupted September 6, but containment shrank from 6 percent to 3 percent Tuesday, according to the Angeles National Forest.

"They are in a firefight right now, because it is so close," LA County Fire Captain David Dantic told the Los Angeles Times, referring to crews positioned at Mt. Wilson.

He said the fire, located about 16 miles (25 kilometers) northeast of downtown Los Angeles, had grown to more than 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares).

"It's a bigger area now," Dantic said. "Before, we had 6 percent containment when it was about 30,000 acres, but now the fire has gotten bigger. It’s a bigger footprint. That’s why the containment is down."

KNX radio said the fire was also threatening broadcast towers in the area worth more than a billion dollars.

'Fires utterly predictable' 

Many communities threatened by the flames have been ordered to stand ready to evacuate while some 80 historic cabins located within Los Angles Forest were feared destroyed, officials said.

The blaze is among 27 fires currently burning in the state that have killed more than 20 people since many of them erupted mid-August.

Other major blazes have also wreaked death and destruction in the neighboring state of Oregon and in Washington state, further to the north.

The fires have charred more than five million acres (two million hectares), an area roughly the size of the state of New Jersey.

President Donald Trump made an hours-long visit to California on Monday to survey the damage, again rejecting scientific evidence that climate change was one cause of the fires.

"I don't think science knows" what is happening, he told state officials during a meeting.

"It will start getting cooler. You just watch," he said.

California Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential hopeful, also visited the northern part of the state on Tuesday and was briefed on the impact of the fires.

Harris visited Auberry, a community located about 35 miles northeast of Fresno, which was ravaged by the Creek Fire, which officials say is one of the largest in California history.

"Sadly, these wildfires and the devastation they cause are utterly predictable," Harris told reporters. "Especially in residential areas, and you’ll see where the fire has just swept through. Everything is gone except the chimney.

"Those chimneys remind me of tombstones." 

The smoke from the fires has left several cities -- Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco -- along the West Coast facing some of the world's worst air quality.

Intense smoke from the wildfires has even reached the East Coast and Europe, according to the National Weather Service.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has compared the quality of the air in fire-ravaged areas of the state as equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes a day.

Biologists believe the wildfires may also have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds found dead in New Mexico and other states.


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