In 2020, the Bobcat fire started on September 6. The fire grew to become one of the largest fires on record in Los Angeles County. and came spectacularly within meters of the burning buildings atop Mount Wilson, buildings not only considered among the crown jewels of astronomy, but also home to infrastructure that transmits cellphone signals and television and radio broadcasts for the greater Los Angeles area.
For 103 days, the Bobcat Fire charred 115,796 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena and prompted an evacuation in Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre and Bradbury.
But the fire also provided important lessons for local firefighters.
“The Bobcat fire, along with many other recent devastating wildfires, has reinforced the reality that disasters can strike with minimal notice,” Pasadena Fire Chief Chad Augustin said. “With the fire season being almost all year round, it is imperative that we remain diligent. Due to increased awareness, Pasadena Fire has a unique opportunity to ensure our residents are aware of and prepared for any disaster through education, preparation and training.
The Bobcat Fire was the first major wildfire since the 2009 Station Fire that devastated the Angeles National Forest, killing two firefighters, 120 structures destroyed and 160,577 acres burned. This fire was the largest in the history of Los Angeles County.
In the Bobcast fire, nearly 6,000 structures were threatened, six people were injured. The fire damaged 28 homes and destroyed 27 others.
“PFD realizes that no one agency can handle every event on their own; we need to use partnerships with other local, state and federal agencies,” Augustin said. “We have worked diligently to ensure that we train regularly with neighboring fire departments to prevent a fire from growing to a devastating size. Additionally, we also worked on updating outdated Mutual Aid Agreements.
The fire also came within 50 feet of Mount Wilson Observatory.
On September 14, observatory officials posted a letter on its website, saying the Bobcat Fire was heading “quickly” to the observatory and could reach it that day.
“Sunday night it crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon, passed Chantry Flats and is heading rapidly towards Mount Wilson. The fire will probably be upon us today.
Observatory officials had taken steps to help the firefighters.
Prior to their evacuation, key mountain personnel connected fire hoses to all fire hydrants and laid them in roads or other locations where they would be very obvious to firefighters. This made it immediately obvious where all the observatory fire hydrants were when fire crews arrived and replaced their own hoses.
And the observatory’s 520,000-gallon tank was full at the time, which gave the fire crews great confidence and allowed them to take the fight further than would otherwise have been possible.
We have often been asked, “How close did the fire come?” We have the answer. (Video from SEPTEMBER 17) Damage: Smoke and soot inside the upper floor of the Monastery but otherwise unscathed. The way these heroic firefighters managed to save the building is incredible! #bobcatfire pic.twitter.com/Qt3nGbRG68
— Mount Wilson Observatory (@MtWilsonObs) September 29, 2020
Firefighters used about half the amount of water in the reservoir and ultimately saved the observatory.
Although Pasadena didn’t experience a major wildfire this summer, other areas of the state weren’t so lucky.
Currently, firefighters across the state are battling 11 major fires that have burned 325,000 acres.
In 2017, a retired climatologist said that California will continue to experience deadly wildfires largely due to climate change, California’s burgeoning population, and people choosing to live dangerously in previously unpopulated forested areas.
According to William Patzert, the temperature in California has risen two to three degrees Fahrenheit over the past 25 years, but during the summer months it is six to eight degrees warmer than it was when the waves of heat lasted from August to September, as opposed to the warmer temperatures that the region suffers from July to October.
Since 2015, more dangerous fires have broken out across the state, burning longer due to rising temperatures. Since 2015, seven of the country’s 12 most destructive wildfires have occurred in California.
The resurgence of increasingly intense fires has led the department to take action.
Since the fire, the Pasadena Fire Department has been working on its first-ever citywide evacuation plan and expanding its partnership with the Pasadena Police Department. Both agencies would play a primary role in maintaining public safety in the event of a citywide emergency.
“While I hope we never need to use this contingency plan, it gives me comfort to know that we will have one in place,” Augustin said. “To help us with our evacuation plan, we worked with a consultant who is the industry leader in evacuation planning.”
This evacuation plan will involve input from stakeholders across multiple areas of the city. We will have town hall style meetings to help gather community feedback. My goal is to have a final product by November 1st.
The video at the top of this story of the Bobcat fire at Mount Wilson was incredibly mixed and stitched together from approximately 86,000 images taken by HPWREN cameras atop Mount Wilson. It was posted on YouTube by Siobhán Dougall.