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'Heroes don't wear capes': Firefighters save historic California observatory from blaze

The Bobcat Fire had come within 500 feet of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where pioneering astronomer Edwin Hubble made historic discoveries.
Image: A hotshots crew walks back after working on a fire line near Mount Wilson Observatory while battling the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles
A hotshots crew walk back after working on a fire line near the Mount Wilson Observatory while battling the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, Calif., on Monday.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Firefighters in Southern California saved the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory from a giant wildfire burning north of Los Angeles, officials said Wednesday.

In a news release, fire officials said that flames at the south end of the roughly 44,000-acre Bobcat Fire had calmed overnight, allowing crews to strengthen containment lines and prevent the blaze from damaging the 116-year-old observatory.

On Tuesday, officials with the U.S. Forest Service said the blaze had been within 500 feet of the facility.

“While there is still much work to be done in southwest and in the northern sections of the fire, your firefighters did incredible work around Mt. Wilson today,” forest officials tweeted late Tuesday.

The observatory sits on a 5,700-foot peak in the Angeles National Forest, a 700,000-acre protected area in the San Gabriel Mountains. The forest is 25 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The fire, which ignited Sept. 6, was only 3 percent contained on Wednesday.

“Heroes don’t wear capes,” the observatory tweeted Wednesday. "They wear personal protection equipment."

The tweet included a photo of a firefighting crew from Monrovia, a city just south the forest, in front of its 60-inch telescope.

Built in 1908, it was the largest operational telescope in the world until a 100-inch instrument was completed at Mt. Wilson nine years later.

The observatory went on to become a seminal site in modern astronomy, the place where Edwin Hubble showed in 1925 that the Milky Way is one of many galaxies. Four years later, Hubble was at Mount Wilson when he confirmed that the universe is still expanding.

The Bobcat Fire is one of 25 major fires in California. A record 3.3 million acres have burned in California this year, and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. Twenty-five people have died, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Butte County, where the Camp Fire killed 85 people two years ago in the state's deadliest wildfire on record — and where 15 have died since a powerful off-shore wind event intensified the North Complex Fire last week — officials reported some progress Tuesday and said that no new humans were found.

But the communities of Feather Falls, Berry Creek and Brush Creek suffered "substantial" damage, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed, the officials said.

Ron Bravo, the deputy operations section chief working the fire response, said firefighters have been working hard on containment lines to keep the fire from spreading to the town of Paradise, which was devastated by the Camp Fire, and other nearby communities.

"We're very confident that we're going to be able to have our lines in place and not have to worry about Paradise or Concow anywhere within the next seven days," he said.

The North Complex West Zone was at more than 77,300 acres and was 29 percent contained; the overall North Complex has burned more than 273,000 acres and was 34 percent contained.

A cold front expected for later this week will bring cooler temperatures, National Weather Service incident meteorologist Dan Borsum said.

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State officials and experts have blamed climate change and a build up of dried-out vegetation for the dozens of fires that have scorched the state.

Massive blazes have also raced across the Pacific Northwest, destroying towns and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

Meteorologists said Tuesday that a haze settling over a wide swath of the East Coast was smoke that had made its way east from the fires.