The clear, dry mountaintop skies of the southwestern United States are a mecca for astronomers. But these pristine conditions come at a cost, as these regions are also “wildfire magnets” for primarily the same reasons.
This 2020 California wildfire season has been a bad one, the second-worst on record. Recently, fires threatened the Lick Observatory complex outside of San Jose, as the SCU Lightning Complex Fire swept across the area east of San Francisco Bay and California Central Valley region. The fire has burned an estimated nearly 400,000 acres thus far, and it came dangerously close to the main domes around August 19–20.
“We are tremendously thankful to the firefighters from all over California, whose courageous actions saved Lick Observatory,” says director Claire Max (University of California Observatories). “CalFire used Lick both as a command post and a safety zone, so that there were firefighters onsite night and day for several days straight.”
The main observatory complex escaped major damage and no one was injured, though a few historic residences — including the home of astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard on Kepler Peak — were lost in the conflagration.
Fires devastated much of California this summer season, brought on by dry conditions coupled with widespread lightning strikes from Tropical Storm Fausto in mid-August. At its worst on August 20th and 21st, the fire came as close as meters from the main domes and was clearly visible via the observatory webcam.
One only has to remember the tragic 2003 Canberra firestorm in Australia that wiped out the Mount Stromlo Observatory established in 1924 to realize the magnitude of what could happen. That fire rushed up Mount Stromlo and engulfed the observatory in less than an hour, barely giving staff enough time to evacuate.
Lick Observatory viewed from Kepler peak. The large dome to the right houses the Shane 3-m telescope. Visible are also the Astrograph dome, the APF dome, the 36″ refractor and the Crossley domes. Look at how close the fire got! pic.twitter.com/GcMkmZFG7o
— UC Observatories (@UCObservatories) August 29, 2020
Currently, the fire evacuation status order for the Mount Hamilton region has not been lifted. “Lick Observatory and Mount Hamilton are clear of the main SCU fire front and are in recovery now,” says Max. “Roads are cleared of debris along with burned trees made unsafe by the fire. On September 2nd, Calfire indicated that the SCU lightning complex fire was more than 70% contained and would be fully contained by sometime on Thursday, September 3rd.
An Historic Observatory
Founded in 1876, Lick Observatory is home to nine telescopes, including the Shane 3-meter reflector, the Anna Nickel 39-inch reflector and the 30-inch Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT). Discoveries made at Lick include the discovery of Jupiter’s tiny moon Amalthea by astronomer Edward Barnard on the night of September 9, 1892. Amalthea was the first new Jovian moon discovered since the time of Galileo. Other Lick astronomers went on to discover three more moons orbiting Jupiter. The facility also houses the 36-inch Great James Lick refractor, the largest operational refracting telescope in the world until the 40-inch Yerkes refractor saw first light in 1897.
Today, science at Lick includes discoveries and investigations of supernovae, extragalactic research, and exoplanet astronomy using the 2.4-meter Automated Planet Finder Telescope. Although skies aren’t as dark as they once were at Lick, due to encroaching light pollution from the Bay area, the site remains a valuable resource for public outreach in science and astronomy.
With a global pandemic, hurricanes, and fires (not to mention a recent mishap at Arecibo), 2020 has been a rough time for the astronomical community, and humanity in general. Still, lessons learned will go long way towards management and protecting these mountaintop astronomical assets in the future, and the pursuit of scientific progress.