By now, most everyone has heard about the ferocious wild fires in California, specifically the Station Fire creeping up toward the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory. What you might not realize, though, is that in addition to the telescopes and other astronomical equipment at risk of burning is a piece of gas engine history.
This was the last photo taken from the towercam at Mt. Wilson Observatory before a backfire broke the Internet connection.
In the June/July 2008 issue of GEM, Larry Evans talked about the restoration of a 1911 50 Fairbanks-Morse Type RE engine and generator that was once dubbed "Big Ben" by the resident astronomers. After several months of work from September 1999 to February 2000, Larry and his brother were able to get Big Ben running again, adding yet another attraction to the history-rich observatory.
In the story, Larry states that Big Ben is located in a fireproof building built in 1910. But whether or not that building is enough to protect the engine remains to be seen. As of Thursday morning (Sept. 3), firefighters had been successful at keeping the flames at bay aided by favorable weather conditions and a heavy dousing of fireproof gel and foam on the buildings. But fire officials warn that the fire could burn until at least Sept. 15 and until then, the safety of the observatory and all of the buildings surrounding it is still in question.
We've contacted Larry and he reported the following via e-mail:
"As of now all is well. Since the mountain top is shared with a huge antenna complex that covers the entire Los Angeles basin with commercial TV, radio, emergency agency communications, etc., a very large effort has been and is being made to ensure its safety. So far the efforts have been successful and hopefully will remain so but this has been an extremely unpredictable fire."
We'll keep you posted with any new information and in the meantime, you can follow the latest developments through observatory director Hal McAlister's blog.
UPDATE: Everything is quiet on Mt. Wilson once again. Thanks to the tireless effort of the firefighters, the observatory, the antennas and Big Ben all appear to be safe and sound.