Southern California is prone to a number of natural disasters, and right now it is fire season.

There are four wildfires burning in the Los Angeles area right now, the largest of which (dubbed the “Station Fire”) has burned over 42,000 acres, and they only have it 5% contained. RIght now, they’re focusing on keeping it from spreading towards more occupied areas.

Large wildfires have a profound effect on the residents of the nearby cities. The smoke from the Station fire can be seen from the high desert in Palmdale all the way to the beaches of Malibu. The smoke fouls the air quality even worse than usual, and it gives the skyline an ominous appearance. Add triple-digit heat and it gets downright apocalyptic.

Normally, wildfires only have direct impact on those unfortunate enough to live nearby. The Station Fire is threatening Mt. Wilson, which could have a much bigger impact on everyone in the Los Angeles area. Mt. Wilson is the tallest point in Southern California, home to the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory (where it was discovered that the universe is expanding), as well as transmitters for all of Los Angeles’s television stations and most of its radio stations. It is also home to an array of other communications transmitters used by cell phone networks, telco providers, and emergency services.

Most of us would not be affected by loss of terrestrial television broadcast, given the proliferation of cable and satellite television. Many people would be inconvenienced by the loss of radio transmissions (though most stations have backup transmitters which may not get as broad of coverage).

The bigger problem would be inter-agency emergency service communication that fire crews from all over the Southwest United States uses to coordinate their efforts. Much of this relies on relays on top of Mt. Wilson. Fending off the fire could get much more difficult if these relays are damaged or destroyed.

The worse nightmare scenario is a different natural disaster strikes the Southland while the Mt. Wilson antenna farm is out of service, and people find themselves without power, cable, satellite TV, internet, mobile device web, etc. and have to to try and get emergency information from traditional terrestrial broadcast, which is limited due to the fire. A serious earthquake in this situation could cause chaos in Los Angeles.

As it is, officials apparently expect the fire to overtake Mt. Wilson tonight, and with the fire only 5% contained, they expect to be battling the fire for several more days. Communication networks which use but do not rely on Mt. Wilson (such as cell phones and internet service providers) may become overtaxed and experience periodic outages. It’s going to be an interesting week.

There is a webcam at the top of a 150 foot tower on Mt. Wilson pointing West past many of the radio towers. Normally it is pitch black at night, but at the moment, it is illuminated by the fire, and the flames look to be very close.

Yesterday, the missus and I were in Pasadena in the afternoon. We drove back home along the foothills to see if we could get a better look at the fire. We stayed clear of areas under evacuation orders, not wanting to add to traffic congestion, but we found ourselves in a liquor store parking lot in Alta Dena, which was pretty close to one hill the flames were trying to come down. Trucks from several different fire departments from all over Southern California made their way up the street, while three different tanker planes dropped pink fire retardant from above.

I had never seen firefighting activity that close up before. The most impressive sight was the large DC-10 tanker which would do a nosedive through the smoke to deposit its retardant as accurately as possible. It is no doubt a very dangerous activity that takes a great degree of skill and dedication from the firefighters who risk their lives to keep fires from doing any more damage than they already have. Everyone respects firefighters, and they deserve every bit of it.

So far, we have been lucky that only a handful of homes have been destroyed. Unfortunately, today two firefighters were killed when their vehicle rolled down the mountain while fighting the Acton Fire.

Hopefully, the weather starts to cooperate in the coming days so that the fire crews are able to get a handled on the fires, and no more firefighters are injured or killed.

I’ve posted some pictures from the fire on Flickr:
Station Fire 2009-08-29

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  1. By Fire! « Tech Pinoy on 31 August 2009 at 1:26 am

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  3. By acton fire on 31 August 2009 at 5:59 pm

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