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.

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    Big fire.....Warrumbungles to Warrnambool!

      LOL. Saw that too.

    I almost cried when I read the firefighters apologized to the PM. Keep up the good fight guys.

    Wouldn't it be insured anyway?
    Could have got new equipment..

    Still amazing what firefighters can do with a little equipment..

      Oh yeh, I would like another 3.9m telescope...

      Insurance may repay the money, getting another built would be another story...

      These pieces of equipment are often actually priceless... (irreplaceable) fortunately they were saved...

    Why allow the treeline to be so close to the dome in the first place? Seems bloody stupid to me.

    Maybe now the brain dead greenies will let forestry commissions get on with fuel reduction in future so we don't lose lives, habitat and property. I wonder how many mung bean munchers went out to help save the forests over this one? Only brave when they have a chain and a bulldozer to contend with.

      I don't think any ACTUAL envrionmentalists who understand ANYTHING about the Australian ecosystem oppose properly managed fuel reduction (e.g. controlled burns).

      reckless deforestation =/= fuel reduction.

        Well in Kinglake before the deathly fires of 2009, no land owner was allowed to remove any fallen trees from their property or clear any distance further than 10 meters from a dwelling. Removal of any tinder, logs or otherwise was prohibited from the roadside or any public land. No fuel reduction had taken place for over a decade, and people lost their lives. Why? Because the council was browbeaten by the green movement into this position. At Yarra Glen, the local scouts group were not allowed to slash the grass on their own property because it was classified as "native grass". FFS, there's no common sense anymore. Remember these laws while today, hundreds of fires rage out of control in almost every state. Don't comment unless you have lived/worked on the land or been involved in bushfires. You wouldn't know. Ask any CFA member what they think about the green movement. These guys put their lives at risk, for you and me.

          It is a little bit ironic that many residents who live out towards the park are 'green' types themselves.

          I live in the area myself. The observatory is safe largely due to lessons learned from Mt Stromlo, with fire resistent paint and materials in use.

          Controlled burning was done around the site during winter. These people are not stupid, and the fact that the place remains is testament to the fact that they took all appropriate measures to protect the place as best possible.

          This fire was and is still BIG, people can easily underestimate mother nature I guess.

            And kr00 your absolutely right it is illegal to remove even a single fallen log in the national park, even by the roadside, let alone wanting to clear firebreaks on your rural property due to the undue and disproportional influence the greens have been allowed to have.

            There are too many suburban greenies who have no concept of where their milk really comes from let alone what fire on this scale is like to experience, that keep voting for idiots in the greens who are partly responsible for this shit.

          Before Black Saturday, Vic Police and Fire legally couldn't force you to leave. NSW could. And have for many years.

          My sister has just bought land and is starting to build in bushland exactly the same as Kingslake, but in NSW. The hoops she has to jump through for bushfire regulations are enormous- no trees within 10m and preferably 50m of the house. No wood construction at all. Own tank (if not on town water) for fire fighting.

          It's all down to how States and Councils organise their regulations. The "Greenies" would have little affect on this overall. Why? My sister is also in the Fire Brigade and has been for 15 years. She knows "Greenies" and they're constantly at the Fire Brigade over back burning. No one puts any serious time into listening to them. Not even OUR Council, noted as the 6th worst in the country a few years back.

          If your or other people's councils do, it's down to you to fix it. We did, after massive fires 2 decades ago.

      Lol, there is a big difference between cutting down ancient forests and reducing fuel.

      kr00, well said.

    History is showing us that we have not learned from history.

    Ash Wednesday, Black Friday, Canberra Fire, the list goes on and on....

    Countless 'souls' lost, property destroyed why??

    Global warming, Climate change, dry windy conditions, that is the reason, right?? (nope)

    The Australian Bush has told us once again, that if you don't burn out the fuel load, it will burn itself out eventually..

    2 good growing seasons (2010 through to mid 2012) after years of drought, fuel load as high as ever. Green movement hindering reduction burns, using "Scientific reports" that "reducing fuel load does not impact on fire severity" , (same as grazing in the alpine region doesn't reduce fire intensity either (that is the claim)).

    City folk get sore eyes looking at the reduction burn smoke, and ugly blackened land, hobby farmers love their trees (in the country fringes and non-productive land), large land owners get threatened with legal action every time they light a fire; National Parks, too under-staffed and cowed by the greenies (also Rangers are often live with their green goggles on... oh they claim that they burn "every suitable day of the year... yep sure thing..)

    I have friends in this fire, who lost property and livelihoods, this is another of those fires which started in an unmanaged remote national park area (same as many of the disasters, they need a breeding ground, and that is often found in the Nat. Parks) and spread onto neighbouring property.

    The State Government is liable, for causing the conditions for this fire to start, and controlling the legislation which allowed it to spread. Local Council is liable as they refused to back-burn, slash and clear the nature strips and fire breaks on land they control... Federal government is liable for limiting funds to the state government.

    The looser is the battler who saw everything burned into the ground...

    Remember Accidents do not just happen, we may not be able to remove the possibility but with "Firestick farming" (another word for burn everything that will burn, in a random pattern (None of the BS that it was always carefully planned and managed.... ) breaks up the burn zones into smaller chunks, reduces the fuel to stop the firestorm developing...

    Gillard can cry Crocodile tears, and maybe feel true anguish, but her ilk will go back to Canberra and allow this to happen again.... The Mayor will set up a relief fund (as the council is likely to be bankrupt already)...O'Farrell will just blame Labour.

    Maybe not for another 50 years in this region, but it will happen in other place this year and next we will never learn.... Stick Bob up on the bonfire instead of Guy.

    Last edited 18/01/13 11:05 am

    That is NOT an "electrical explosion". It's embers flying through the air - bits of burning trees blown by the wind. The camera is using a long exposure to capture the image because it was dark, so the embers leave trails.

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