It might be helpful here to emphasise for readers of this blog just how great is the historical importance of the Mount Wilson Observatory. The observatory had the world’s largest telescope for most of the first half of the 20th century. The 100-inch diameter Hooker Telescope was used for some critically important research programmes, most notably by Edwin Hubble. Hubble demonstrated for the first time that some “nebulae” are actually separate galaxies from our own. Hubble then went on to show that the Universe is expanding. The loss of the observatory in the fires would mean the loss of a site of international cultural significance.
This reminds me a little of an observing trip I had to Siding Spring Observatory in Australia several years ago. The weather had been very dry in New South Wales for some weeks. Lightning strikes ignited forest fires in the Warrumbungle National Park which surrounds the observatory soon after I arrived. High-altitude smoke messed up my attempts to gather scientific data. Fires had started on the outskirts of Sydney by the time I got back there; there was a smell of smoke across the city by the time I flew out.
The Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra, Australia, was hit by a devastating fire back in 2003. Some observing facilities were destroyed, including the telescope that had been used for very important studies of gravitational microlensing to test the character of dark matter.
We can only hope that the efforts to save the Mount Wilson Observatory are successful.
Although it’s no comfort to people who live and work near such conflagrations, it is worth bearing mind that wildfires are in fact part of the natural ecology of large forests. It is only in the aftermath of devastating fires that the seeds of many species of tree can successfully germinate. It has been argued that human intervention in forest fires has been responsible for doing great damage to these fascinating ecosystems which evolve on very long timescales.