Firefighters waging an all-out “mini-Alamo” defense of Mount Wilson Observatory saved the famed astronomical complex from a blaze raging through rugged peaks above the foothill suburbs of Los Angeles, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said on Wednesday.
The pitched battle to protect the mountaintop observatory and an adjacent communications site came as power equipment belonging to electric utility Southern California Edison came under scrutiny in an investigation into the cause of the so-called Bobcat Fire.
The western flank of the fire crept to within just 500 feet of the observatory on Tuesday as 12 ground crews fought with hand tools and bulldozers to fend off the flames while a squadron of water-dropping helicopters and airplane tankers loaded with fire retardant doused the blaze from the air, officials said.
By Tuesday night, helped by calming winds, firefighters managed to keep the flames at bay. In addition to the 116-year-old observatory, crews saved a nearby cluster of broadcast and communications towers critical to the greater Los Angeles area, Forest Service spokesman John Clearwater said.
“It came down to an almost mini-Alamo,” Clearwater told Reuters by phone, referring to the pivotal siege in the Texas revolution against Mexico in 1836. “Those firefighters were determined to defend that mountaintop down to the last drop of water.”
The 5,700-foot summit in the San Gabriel Mountains is home to about 50 buildings in all connected with the array of radio antennae and the adjacent observatory, which conducted pioneering astronomical research for much of the 20th century. No buildings were burned, Clearwater said.
The observatory was likewise narrowly spared from a much larger blaze fought off by fire crews in 2009.
Since erupting on Sept. 6, the fire has charred some 44,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, belching smoke and ash over much of the greater Los Angeles area for over a week and forcing evacuations of several communities at the foot of the mountains.
The blaze was one of dozens of wildfires that broke out during the Labor Day holiday weekend, stoked by a late-summer heat wave that baked much of the U.S. West Coast before cooler weather prevailed.
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