Fire Escapes

When I checked into Twitter this morning I was perturbed to see a flurry of panicky messages from astronomers down under. No wonder. The bush fires that have been raging in New South Wales for some time yesterday threatened to engulf the world-famous Siding Spring Observatory – the largest optical observatory in Australia – where 12 important telescopes are located, not to mention the people that operate them.

I’ll direct you to Amanda Bauer’s blog piece for dramatic coverage of what was obviously a terrifying and exhausting night, as flames and smoke crept remorsely closer to the observatory buildings.


At about 3.30pm local time, the buildings were evacuated and soon afterwards the fire penetrated the perimeter of the Observatory itself and subsequently swept through the complex. Temperatures inside some of the domes went as high as 100 °C and a lot of the electrical equipment has clearly been damaged.

Scary stuff but, most importantly of all, at least nobody was hurt. It also seems that damage to the observatory buildings and equipment was relatively slight. That however is a preliminary assessment, and may well be revised when it’s safe to enter the area again. Wildfires of this sort are extremely frightening things, so this must have been a very difficult time for those involved but, fingers crossed, it seems not to have turned out as badly as some feared.

Coincidentally, I had a little fire drama at home myself last night, although I hasten to add it was not on the same scale as the goings-on in Siding Spring. The weather in Cardiff being rather inclement I decided to complete my Saturday afternoon shopping with the purchase of a sack of logs for the fire. I have central heating, so don’t actually need the open fire for warmth, but it does add an extra level of cosiness on a winter evening. It also provides something to look at which is more interesting than the television I no longer possess…

It’s not all that easy to get a fire started in my grate, but I managed at the first attempt yesterday. Wood has a tendency to spit and crackle while burning so I put the fireguard around..

(The flames weren’t actually that purple colour, more of a reddish orange; I think the flash on the camera is responsible for the change of hue.)

Anyway, I kept the fire going all through the evening which meant by the time I was ready for my nightcap I had no logs left. I then remembered a bit of wood (or, more accurately, MDF) that was left over when I had some shelves fitted. I found it in a cupboard and chucked it on the fire and left the room to make a drink.

A couple of minutes later my smoke alarm went off. Bemused, I ran back into the living room and found it filled with acrid smoke, produced by the veneer that coated the bit of surplus shelf, which was being produced in quantities too large for the chimney to cope with.

I hastily switched off the alarm and opened all the windows and doors on the ground floor, much to the amusement of the folk passing my house on the way home from the pub. Ironically my attempts to stay warm and cosy all through the evening had ended with arctic winds blowing through the house. The smoke cleared fairly soon, although the smell of it was still lingering this morning.

Still, nobody was hurt and there was no serious damage to buildings or equipment. And at least now I know my smoke alarm does actually work…

5 Responses to “Fire Escapes”

  1. Re the purple colour of your fire. Does it have anything to do with a digital camera being more sensitive to infrared than the human eye? Never done any experiments myself on this but

    Mr Reid thinks so, and talks about “kameraflage” an ink that only shows up when you take a picture of it with a camera phone.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve no idea. The fire would have been pretty bright in the Infra-red, but the actual response of the camera would have to be checked experimentally. Sounds like a good undergraduate project idea!

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I was shocked to learn of the wild fires at Siding Spring Observatory, having visited the place several times. We can only hope that the damage to the observatory is not too extensive and that homes in the nearby area have not been affected significantly. I’m relieved that all staff and visitors were evacuated safely.

    Lightning from a thunderstorm ignited fires within the Warrumbungles National Park when I was observing on the 2.3-metre telescope more than 10 years ago. The fires spread, releasing smoke that affected the observing somewhat. Fortunately, the fires were limited in extent and were confined to a part of the national park far from the observatory and habited communities at that time.

  3. Terrible about Siding Springs and Mopra. Good that the fire service was on the ball and had everyone out. I hope that the telescopes will be ok as well. The lodge would be easier to replace than the domes.

    I remember the Observatory well – both the best and the worst of its weather., One particularly memorable run had all three nights rain – apart from one hour when instead it seemed to snow. Another time I remember (driving up from Sydney) a rainbow during sunset. Stopped to watch – as the Sun set, the rainbow detached from the horizon (as it should) and turned beautifully red. But the Observatory is best known for its innovation . It has shown that you don;t need a world-beating site if you have smarter instruments than anyone else.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I had 8-arcsec seeing there once.

      On another occasion I had one night on 2dF to access one target (I was at the observatory for some other project – I didn’t travel there for just a night on 2dF). The night was clear apart from the 5.5 hours my target was accessible due to altitude constraints. The cloud came at almost exactly the time the target first got high enough to observe, then cleared at almost exactly the time it got too low.

      I must agree with the comment about the innovation carried out at Siding Spring, due to the abilities of the staff and collaborations at other institutions. The withdrawal of UK participation was very sad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: