Science

How The Fire Fight For Australia's Greatest Observatory Was Won

High-atop a mountain, overlooking a picturesque valley in the Warrambungle National Park, sits one of Australia’s most precious scientific installations: the Siding Spring Observatory. Home to 11 of the world’s most powerful sky-mapping telescopes, Siding Spring this week came under threat from a fire storm so intense that it struck fear into the hearts of senior firefighters. Flames kissed the doorstep of the observatory and the smoke could be seen from space as the dedicated staff watched helplessly from webcams still broadcasting the dramatic events. This is how the fire fight of Siding Spring was fought and won.


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On Sunday (14 January), word came in that the 18 staff living and working at the Siding Spring Observatory were to evacuate the facility due to the oncoming fire front. The fire — dubbed the Warrumbungle Fire — was already consuming homes and moving quickly to threaten others thanks to a strong Southerly wind pushing it on. Flames roared across the national park, killing livestock and threatening life.

Firefighters quickly moved to contain the blaze while back-burning ahead of it to starve the fire of precious fuel. Simultaneously, crews were bombing the blaze from the air with heavy-lifting choppers and massive water buckets.

The Observatory staff, meanwhile, were confirmed safe by 4pm Sunday and immediately they tuned into the webcams installed around the facility to track the fire front as it advanced towards some of the most precious scientific mapping equipment in the world.

Built in the 1960s, the Siding Spring facility was constructed to compliment and ultimately replace the Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra. Siding Spring was chosen because of its isolated locale making for better viewing of the sky at night and its high elevation of 1100 metres above sea level.

Siding Spring plays host to some of the world’s most important astronomical equipment, including the Anglo-Australian telescope, the Australian National University’s (ANU) SkyMapper telescope and the ANU’s 2.3-metre aperture telescope. Siding Spring became more significant when in 2003, Mount Stromlo was hit by intense bushfires that claimed several buildings and five critically important telescopes.

It had been 10 years to the week that fire claimed Mount Stromlo, and now scientists and other observatory staff were being put to the test again.

The Warrumbungle fire continued to pick up the pace as firefighters evacuated residents around the Warrnambool area and as the fire began to move uphill towards the Siding Spring installation, attention turned towards saving the observatory.

Super Science Fellow, Dr Amanda Bauer, started live blogging the fire as she remotely watched the fire race towards the facility. As fire crews arrived on site that afternoon, hopes ran high that they could save the facility. The massive SkyMapper automated telescope was “still talking to computers and working,” she wrote.

The nearby MOPRA telescope captured the smoke in the sky as flames rolled ever-closer to the Siding Spring Observatory.

Fire fighting crews from the New South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, the Rural Fire Service and the Siding Spring Fire Service arrived to defend the area, and thanks to the cover provided by the car park and previous back-burning operations, six trucks were able to operate out of the area well into the night.

The fight to save Siding Spring was on as flames charged up the mountain. 30 firefighters attacked the fire on multiple fronts to save Australia’s astronomy golden child. 10pm rolled around, however, and the situation became dire.

Flames bore down on the observatory, gutting sheds and lodging areas all over the campus. Electronics began to combust and explode all over the site, with one scientist capturing a terrifying image of an electrical explosion caused by the intense heat.

The scenes, as demonstrated by a time-lapse video captured by on-site webcams, were truly frightening. Every freeze frame shows flames on the doorstep of the facility.

Several buildings had already been confirmed as destroyed, and Dr Bauer and the rest of the observatory staff had no idea if the precious telescopes would survive the night.

At 11:15pm, however…

Good news! Astronomers are able to get readings from the 2.3 meter telescope on siding spring. the interior temperature is ok (20 C).

30 firefighters, clever fuel-reduction and site protection techniques to keep embers out of the telescopes had safeguarded Australia’s best astronomy equipment. Three buildings were lost, but not a soul perished in the flames and the telescopes were saved before flames could reach them. The only concern now is the smoke damage to the actual buildings the telescopes are housed in.

The facility is closed for two weeks pending an assessment by fire crews and staff from the Australian National University. In the meantime, Siding Spring is being powered by an on-site generator and a large amount of water for follow-up work has been shipped in.

Today, Prime Minister Julia Gillard toured the fire-affected area before announcing disaster funding packages for the 49 homes that burned to the ground. She told the media during a press conference that she had been approached by the firefighters who battled to save the observatory.

The PM said that the firefighters actually apologised to her, saying they were truly sorry they couldn’t save the whole facility. They were devastated that three buildings had been lost on their watch. The Prime Minister thanked them for their efforts, and assured them that their lives are worth more than the three buildings could ever be.

Siding Spring, the lives of 18 staff and all of the precious astronomy equipment was saved thanks to the heroism of these 30-odd firefighters, and we here at Gizmodo Australia applaud them for their efforts.

Thanks to Dr Amanda Bauer and the Rural Fire Service for the images and videos in this story.