With mammoth Bobcat fire looming, firefighters draw battle lines along Mt. Wilson’s steep slopes

Fire crews stood poised atop Mount Wilson on Tuesday, Sept. 15, strategizing in the shadow of billions of dollars worth of communications infrastructure and history-shaping telescopes. With the Bobcat fire’s various smoky layers dancing as close as 500 feet away, snaking upward toward the complex from various wooded routes, the team’s mission was simple: Protect the familiar towers of the Mount Wilson Observatory.

Already, a fiery tendril from the forest blaze crested a steep ridge around midday and wound toward an observation pathway facing east from the mountaintop. Black smoke poured out from the burning trees and flames climbed dozens of feet into the air. The wildfire sounded more like a waterfall, a din of cracking and popping.

That small, pesky fire, however, was the least of their concerns. It was just a finger off the mammoth blaze ascending from the base of the mountain.

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters keep watch from an overlook on Mount Wilson near the observatory as the Bobcat Fire burns in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Curtis Wisman, center, talks with a fire crew, who are working to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Firefighters work to prevent the Bobcat fire from reaching the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

A dear is near the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 ad the Bobcat fire burns towards the historic landmark. (Photo by Bradley Bermont, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

“As you guys can tell, this is close,” Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Curtis Wisman said to a group of his colleagues, gesturing toward the fire as he explained what crews could face in the coming hours. “This is the closest point.”

Despite the hellish scene behind, he spoke with matter-of-fact precision, tapping poise shaped by experience. The situation could worsen, he said, and promptly described a handful of those scenarios — and battle plans they could deploy to head them off.

Wisman pointed to one side of the ridge, then the other: He gestured toward drainage chutes carved into the side of the mountain. The terrain is steep and unforgiving, he said. It’s too dangerous to send firefighters in by foot, so crews would depend on air drops from helicopters and hope for favorable winds.

If it started blowing really hard, he said, those drainage chutes could funnel the fire straight to the mountaintop.

Numerous structures stood both on the slope and at the summit of the mountain, including a small house from 1910. If the fire went up one of the drains, it could easily hit that house and erupt.

If the blaze were to make its way to the summit, yellow fire hoses  wound around the grounds; one had to step carefully to avoid tripping over them. If the fire got closer, crews would line up and start spraying.

“If the fire behavior gets too extreme, we’ll fall back to the dome,” Wisman said, pointing to the enormous white building that holds one of the site’s many high-tech telescopes.

Scattered buildings surrounded he dome, he said. They’re mostly made of steel and would be able to deflect much of the heat, if the firefighters got pushed back.

There wouldn’t be any supertankers swooping in to make drops, Wisman said. Most of the prominent ridges have “already been painted” in fire retardant. But if the situation grew dire, helicopters were on standby.

As the firefighters mapped their plans, a chopper circled overhead. The pilot was scouting for potential hotspots, Wisman said, and collecting better information they could use to shape later strategies.

If things got really hairy, two escape routes were available to firefighters: Both windy, mountain roads that can barely accommodate two vehicles. One had a landslide cleared off from it just a day or two earlier as a backup escape plan.

On the other side of the mountain, facing south, hand crews from the Santa Fe Hotshots hiked through rocky, brush-filled terrain. Axes and chainsaws in hand, they traversed narrow ridges with exceedingly steep slopes below. As they walked past, the smell of diesel fuel filled the air. A few minutes later, the low rumble of buzzing chainsaws echoed through the canyon.

The team aimed to establish 15- to 20-foot wide fire lines — as wide as the terrain would permit — pulling up every piece of lumber and brush that could ignite.

Firefighters planned to launch controlled burns after the lines were established, explained  Division Chief Oscar Vargas from the Angeles National Forest. The crews would set fires to burn downhill, consuming all of the available fuel before the wildfire climbed further uphill.

Looking downhill, it was impossible to see any fire through the thick smoke: “Oh, it’s there,” Vargas said, pulling out a thermal imaging monocular. Looking through the device revealed a blanket of reds, oranges and yellows. While they looked small, Vargas knew better.

The Santa Fe Hotshots were taking over for another crew, the Mill Creek Hotshots, whose firefighters worked through the night, cutting lines and setting controlled burns.

“It was successful,” firefighter Brandon Rodriguez said, just before he left the summit for a delayed breakfast. “The wind started to shift around midnight and then we started to take on smoke. By then, we took a pause on the burn. We picked it back up this morning and tied it into the black.”

Rodriguez and his teammates had just come from the Dolan Fire near Big Sur a few days earlier, he said. That fire was significantly bigger than the Bobcat fire, he said.

“But this is a little different because we have multi-billion dollar satellites up here and stuff,” he said. “It’s a little more serious.”

He bemoaned the intensity of this past fire season, frustrated by how thin firefighters’ resources have been spread.

L.A. County Fire Capt. David Dantic, a spokesman for the joint firefighting effort, couldn’t say exactly how many firefighters were working atop Mt. Wilson on Tuesday, but said 1,081 firefighters were engaged against the entire Bobcat fire.

“The main objective is to contain the line and make sure the fire doesn’t go north, south or west,” he said in an interview.

Burning since Sept. 6, the fire consumed more than 41,000 acres, he said. Crews have been building defensible space atop Mt. Wilson for two days now.

At this point, the team had set the table. Fire lines were under construction, backfires set, the terrain studied from all angles.

And if their positions were overrun by extreme fire behavior, one fire captain simply told his troops to head for the dome.

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News – With mammoth Bobcat fire looming, firefighters draw battle lines along Mt. Wilson’s steep slopes