After the fire: An update from Mt. Wilson

On September 6, 2020, the Bobcat Fire started in the San Gabriel Mountains. Within a week, it had burned about 38,000 acres and was soon threatening the historic Mount Wilson Observatory, which is home to the historic telescopes Edwin Hubble used to prove the existence of other galaxies and the expansion of the universe. The Bobcat Fire is the second largest fire on record in Los Angeles County to date. It burned over 115,000 acres and was active for more than three months.

Every year, Mount Wilson Observatory’s staff prepares for possible forest fires by clearing invasive fire-prone vegetation and filling the large water tanks that supply its fire-suppression system. Also this year, thanks to a donation from the Ludwick Family Foundation, new high-flow hydrants had been installed just a few months before the conflagration. These efforts were a major part of the Observatory's survival, as flames from the Bobcat Fire came within 20 feet of its grounds. Twelve fire crews, composed of 40 to 50 firefighters from different departments, worked around the clock to preserve and defend this historic spot. Thankfully, the only damage to the Observatory buildings was smoke and soot inside the upper story of “The Monastery,” the former residential quarters for the astronomers who observed there. 

Prior to the outbreak of the Bobcat Fire, the Mount Wilson Institute closed the Observatory’s telescopes, museum, and other facilities to the public to help limit the spread of COVID-19. During the downtime, facilities were maintained and restored, including a major repair of the 100-inch telescope’s dome. However, since the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Observatory’s revenue-generating programs for the year, there are no remaining funds to complete other necessary major renovations and upgrades. The Board of Mount Wilson Institute recently approved a GoFundMe campaign that will finance future projects including ongoing fire security needs, refurbishment of the Monastery, and modernization of the auditorium and museum. If you would like to contribute to the fund, you can follow this link.

Tom Meneghini, the Executive Director of the Mount Wilson Institute, told us “In normal years, thousands of astronomy and science enthusiasts from all over the world come to visit the site that launched modern cosmology. Visitors are able to look through telescopes, attend astronomy lectures and concerts, and take tours of our historic grounds. Mount Wilson inspires many to learn more about the natural world and to have a deeper appreciation for scientific knowledge. We are incredibly grateful to all the firefighters on the ground and the helicopter pilots in the air who worked so hard to ensure our survival. We look forward to reopening this magical site as soon as it is safe to do so.”