Newsletter: Observatory that revealed the universe under threat from fire

A Martin Mars Super Scooper flies over Mt. Wilson Observatory and radio towers Tuesday.
A Martin Mars Super Scooper flies over a telescope moments before dropping 7,200 gallons of water to keep flames away from the Mt. Wilson Observatory and radio towers Tuesday.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Burning in the rugged terrain of the Angeles National Forest, the Bobcat fire has clouded skies around Los Angeles and forced residents in parts of Arcadia and Sierra Madre to evacuate their homes.

On Tuesday, firefighters mounted an aggressive defense from the air and on the ground as the fire threatened the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory — a site pivotal to the history of astronomy.

[Read the story: “Bobcat fire within 500 feet of famed Mt. Wilson Observatory as firefighters mount a defense” in the Los Angeles Times]


Bobcat fire containment levels had dropped Monday night as the blaze continued to evade firefighters, and flames moved within striking distance of the 116-year-old observatory early Tuesday. Just after noon, forest officials tweeted that the fire was within 500 feet of the observatory.

Why Mt. Wilson Observatory matters

Perched high in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, Mt. Wilson Observatory is a place that some have called astronomy’s “Sistine Chapel.”

A century ago, many astronomers believed that the Milky Way — where our planet resides — was just a single lonely galaxy in space, with nothing beyond it. But in the 1920s, a lawyer-turned-scientist named Edwin Hubble made a series of discoveries that bolstered our understanding of the universe, and our place within it.

Using what was then the largest telescope in the world, Hubble confirmed the existence of other galaxies, radically expanding our notion of what lays beyond us. “The limits of the universe have pushed outward,” The Times declared in 1925, describing Hubble’s history-making work at Mt. Wilson. A few years later, Hubble discovered that the universe was not just far larger than many had thought — it was actually expanding.

[Read the story: “So much at stake as firefighters battle to save historic Mt. Wilson Observatory” in the Los Angeles Times]

These two discoveries, as a former Times writer put it two decades ago, showed us that man was merely “a middling creature scuttling across the surface of an obscure planet among trillions of stars.”

Installed in 1917, the observatory’s 100-inch Hooker telescope held its position as the largest telescope in the world for more than three decades. As my colleague Amina Khan wrote in 2017, the telescope’s ability to probe the distant heavens dimmed as Los Angeles grew and its city lights brightened. The nonprofit Mt. Wilson Institute now owns the observatory, volunteers manage the telescopes, and the institute sells telescope time to private groups and provides educational tours for local schools.

As my colleague Hayley Smith reports, in addition to the observatory’s iconic structures, there are several communications towers atop Mt. Wilson that are threatened by the blaze.

“There’s major infrastructure for radio, television and cell towers up there,” L.A. County Fire Capt. David Dantic told her, saying disruptions to service were possible.

Meanwhile, fire crews across California have continued working to hem in some two dozen major blazes still burning statewide. The confirmed death toll from this year’s unprecedented firestorm has risen to 25, with 15 of those fatalities stemming from the North Complex fire near Oroville.

[Read the story: “15 fatalities confirmed. North Complex now among state’s top 5 deadliest fires” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

2020 California fires are the worst ever. Again. The Times analyzed decades of data tracking California wildfires and the destruction they’ve wrought. The analysis found that wildfires and their compounding effects have intensified in recent years — and there’s little sign things will improve. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. officials warn against lifting COVID-19 restrictions until there’s a review of Labor Day weekend data. California’s COVID-19 case count and hospitalizations are declining, but L.A. County’s top public health official still isn’t ready to ease restrictions. Los Angeles Times

LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped drive gun violence this year, in part by spurring economic despair and interpersonal dramas while undercutting efforts to interrupt cycles of retaliation. Los Angeles Times

Facing an uncertain future, L.A. radio stalwart KCRW reduces staff by at least 24. KCRW has offered buyouts to staff members, and more than 20 of them — including DJs Liza Richardson, Mario Cotto and Mathieu Schreyer — have accepted. Los Angeles Times

Clippers collapse again as their playoff run ends with Game 7 loss to Nuggets: The Clippers forfeited a series 3-1 lead and added another disastrous chapter to their 50-year history of playoff misery. Los Angeles Times

Meet the youth shining light on an underreported area of Los Angeles: Community journalism is at the heart of the youth-driven Boyle Heights Beat project. Poynter

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When will you know if Biden or Trump wins? It could depend on absentee ballot rules in these states. Los Angeles Times

Sen. Kamala Harris sounds the climate change alarm from the ruins of the Creek fire. The vice presidential candidate visited a town near Fresno devastated by the Creek fire on Tuesday. San Francisco Chronicle

The city of Anaheim has called on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen Disneyland and Disney California Adventure after a six-month coronavirus closure that has led to a $100-million shortfall in city coffers. Orange County Register

A typical day at Disneyland, back when it was open.
A typical day at Disneyland, back when it was open.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)


The ACLU is suing Palo Alto over “unconstitutional” restrictions at a residents-only park. “The lawsuit comes about two months after activists resurrected a decades-long fight over the 1,400-acre park, a massive nature preserve off Page Mill Road believed to be the only publicly owned park in California that excludes nonresidents unless they’re guests accompanied by Palo Altans.” Mercury News


In a small California town, a fight over desalination is now about environmental justice. A proposed desalination plant along Monterey Bay is one of the most fraught issues to come before the California Coastal Commission. Los Angeles Times


Major League Baseball and the players union have agreed to a playoff bubble plan that includes L.A. and San Diego. The Dodgers are expected to clinch a postseason spot this week. Los Angeles Times

How Cameo blew up during quarantine: With live events canceled, people are increasingly marking birthdays, graduations and breakups with shout-outs from C-list celebrities through the service. The New Yorker

[Previously: “Cameo videos let NBA stars connect with fans during self-isolation” in the Los Angeles Times]

In Sonoma County, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted not only quinceañeras, but the fortunes of local and Latino businesses that cater to the celebrations, including limousine companies, dance choreographers, food trucks, DJs and dress shops. Sonoma Index-Tribune

The San Luis Obispo man behind the city’s historic smoking ban has died at 82. In 1990, the former city councilman spearheaded a first-in-the-nation ordinance to ban smoking in all indoor public places in the city — the same kind of law that’s now commonplace across the country. San Luis Obispo Tribune

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Los Angeles: sunny, 91. San Diego: sunny, 84. San Francisco: hazy, 71. San Jose: partly sunny, 78. Fresno: sunny, 83. Sacramento: partly sunny, 89. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from George Charles Riek:

On Oct. 17, 1989, I was participating in an engineering conference in San Francisco. I had parked right next to a brick building. The doors on my car on both sides were open so that I could place some large charts in the backseat. When the Loma Prieta earthquake occurred, it was so violent that the car moved back and forth, with the doors almost hitting the pavement. Fortunately the brick wall did not fail. Since the phone lines were jammed, I could not call my wife, who was in our home across the bay. What was noteworthy is that the drivers were very cautious and patient.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.