Mt. Wilson Towers 'Going to Be OK'

There’s a very good L.A. Times report from the front lines of the firefighters’ brave–and thus far successful–struggle to preserve the broadcast facilities and the observatory on Mt. Wilson amidst the raging wildfires near Los Angeles. The story shows just how fickle a wildfire can be–the 20-odd broadcast antennas were considered goners early in the week, only to see them as much less threatened right now.

The Times story, from Paul Pringle and Louis Sahagun, sounds like war reporting.

To one side of the firefighters were multiplying ranks of snarling flames that already had turned miles of centuries-old trees to charcoal. To the other side were a hundred years of astronomical history and hundreds of millions of dollars in communications towers, treasures to the city below.

Over five days and four nights, the fight would be waged on the ground and from the sky, and the odds of saving the legendary observatory and its neighboring thickets of broadcast spires often seemed slim at best.

[Forest Service Chief Larry] Peabody and his colleagues were already exhausted. In oven heat, they had hacked away brush around Mt. Wilson’s structures, and taken chain saws to low-hanging limbs of oak and pine, in hopes of starving the main body of the fire. As they toiled, smaller but growing flare-ups climbed the mountain like a procession of candle-bearers.

Now, some of the firefighters were trying to steal a few hours of sleep, or at least a few minutes, in bedrolls on a turn-off from the highway. Clogging the narrow lanes were boulders loosened from the braces of trees that had been felled by the fire.

On Mt. Wilson itself, two-dozen firefighters stood overnight sentry, positioned along the gloomy perimeters of the observatory and towers. A greater number might have been deployed, but there were more pressing priorities in the urban elevations — the protection of hillside homes.

As of yesterday afternoon, fire officials were, for the first time all week, optimistic about the towers’ fate.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that the die-hard crews were feeling good about their prospects of winning, even though scattered hot spots continued to menace the observatory.

“We’re pretty confident,” said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Edward Osorio. “Mt. Wilson is going to be OK.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.