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Australia Space Science

Bushfire Threatens Major Telescope 79

Posted by samzenpus
from the burning-dow-the-house dept.
Thorfinn.au writes "Authorities are warning lives and property are under immediate threat as a large bushfire burns out of control near communities in northern New South Wales. The Rural Fire Service has issued an emergency warning for the large, fast moving blaze near Coonabarabran, which has already destroyed two properties. Siding Springs, the principal optical observatory is under threat. The MtStromlo observatory was destroyed in a bush fire in 2003."
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Bushfire Threatens Major Telescope

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  • Re:Threat Passed (Score:5, Informative)

    by Tapewolf (1639955) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:41PM (#42576989)

    The threat has passed. Some minor out buildings were damaged, but otherwise the majority of the main equipment was unharmed.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/01/13/siding_spring_survives_firestorm/ [theregister.co.uk]

  • by FirephoxRising (2033058) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @06:43PM (#42577379)
    We do have some fairly extreme weather here, and the last three years have been wet, making hazard reduction burns difficult. Now we have lots of fuel and this summer is dry and hot. As the temperature rises, the relative humidity falls and the fine fuels dry out in less than an hour. Then you have a very large fuel load with the fine fuels (grass, twigs, leaves) acting like tinder. All you need then is an ignition source and high winds and you have a major problem.
  • Re:Where (Score:5, Informative)

    by ChunderDownunder (709234) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @08:03PM (#42577827)

    Don't they teach world history/geography in schools these days? :-)

    NSW has existed on world maps for over two centuries, has a population larger than Washington State or Serbia and is bigger than Texas or Mozambique.

  • by Tapewolf (1639955) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @09:30PM (#42578247)

    I, too, hope for minor damage only. After first-hand experience of the bushfire that destroyed Mount Stromlo 18 Jan 2003 (and the ensuing shit fight with insurers) I would not wish a similar loss on the ANU and others again.

    The Register had a link to this:

    http://news.anu.edu.au/2013/01/08/fire-risk-information-for-anu-staff-and-students/ [anu.edu.au]

    The Observatory has survived with some damage and some loss of buildings.

    An initial assessment indicates that five buildings have been severely affected or damaged, including the Lodge used to accommodate visiting researchers and a number of cottages and sheds. A fire has been extinguished at the Visitors Centre this morning . We expect the Visitor Centre has been severely damaged.


    An initial visual assessment indicated that no telescopes appear to have received major damage, but the impact of the fire on the instruments will not be known until later today.

  • by tconnors (91126) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @11:51PM (#42578913) Homepage Journal

    Do they never do controlled burns to reduce the burden of undergrowth? Seems like they keep having large bush fires threaten important stuff.

    One wonders if this is Environmentalism run amuck of putting out all fires until instead of number of small natural fires that don't do significant damage, the fuel builds up into inferno range that does great damage?

    Or you could just clear the brush around your observatory regularly -- again if the Environmentalists let you. Australia is rather weird in this regard.

    Well, 10 years ago to the week, Mount Stromlo Observatory burnt down. The owners of that also own Siding Spring, and put in place many measures. Like clearing trees, and installing fire mesh on all the windows.

    Problem is, the flash point of eucalyptus oil is 47 degrees, so on hot days the country is basically guaranteed to erupt in a massive fireball. Fireballs have been observed rolling along bare earth for a km, just igniting the volatile oils above the ground layer in the air.

    Other problem is that we've had record rains for 2/3 years so burnoffs couldn't really be done. And now we're back in a record hot spell, and everything has completely dried out in the past 6 months now that La Nina is back. It went from too wet to burn off to too volatile to burn off in a blink of the eye (and since there are government organisations involved, it could be argued they can't act that quickly :) .

    Most buildings on the mountaintop are 1970's era. The main 3.9m dome has no active fire safety equipment in it, but it is clad in fire proof material and was always intended as the fire safety refuge for the entire mountaintop, since there's only a single winding road off the mountaintop (which always scared the hell out of me in Summer).

    The lodge on the other hand had wooden doors, was quite up close to the bush (a feature, because it moderated the temperatures for the astronomers sleeping during the daytime), and was sorely lacking in maintenance (although when I worked there, I could hear workman on the roof often enough, so I presume they were clearing leaves and twigs from the roof).

    Fortunately, yesterday was Sunday. The photos the guy on duty took just before leaving look awfully scary to me, but he's a firey, and knows what he's doing. Might have been interesting to get all 18 staff and x number of visiting astronomers off the mountain in a hurry if it was a week working day the bus was back in town and not available when the evac was called. Not much room to land a chopper (although it's been done before).

  • by tconnors (91126) on Monday January 14, 2013 @12:06AM (#42578969) Homepage Journal

    Well, 10 years ago to the week, Mount Stromlo Observatory burnt down. The owners of that also own Siding Spring, and put in place many measures. Like clearing trees, and installing fire mesh on all the windows.

    Problem is, the flash point of eucalyptus oil is 47 degrees, so on hot days the country is basically guaranteed to erupt in a massive fireball. Fireballs have been observed rolling along bare earth for a km, just igniting the volatile oils above the ground layer in the air.

    Other problem is that we've had record rains for 2/3 years so burnoffs couldn't really be done. And now we're back in a record hot spell, and everything has completely dried out in the past 6 months now that La Nina is back. It went from too wet to burn off to too volatile to burn off in a blink of the eye (and since there are government organisations involved, it could be argued they can't act that quickly :) .

    Most buildings on the mountaintop are 1970's era. The main 3.9m dome has no active fire safety equipment in it, but it is clad in fire proof material and was always intended as the fire safety refuge for the entire mountaintop, since there's only a single winding road off the mountaintop (which always scared the hell out of me in Summer).

    The lodge on the other hand had wooden doors, was quite up close to the bush (a feature, because it moderated the temperatures for the astronomers sleeping during the daytime), and was sorely lacking in maintenance (although when I worked there, I could hear workman on the roof often enough, so I presume they were clearing leaves and twigs from the roof).

    Fortunately, yesterday was Sunday. The photos the guy on duty took just before leaving look awfully scary to me, but he's a firey, and knows what he's doing. Might have been interesting to get all 18 staff and x number of visiting astronomers off the mountain in a hurry if it was a week working day the bus was back in town and not available when the evac was called. Not much room to land a chopper (although it's been done before).

    By the way, it was 40 degrees on the mountaintop yesterday according to the onsite met tower (prior to reading 104degC for a couple of minutes as the fire passed over). When I worked there, I found that if it was hot on the mountaintop, it was unbearable in town. The constant temperature inversion meant that it was always 10 or so degrees hotter in town. Yesterday was a frickin dangerous day. I haven't looked, but I suspect we made a lot of use of the new category of fire danger that was introduced after the Victorian Black Friday fires a few years ago - "Catastrophic (Code Red)". That's the new category they now use to say "get the fuck out, don't even try to defend your purpose built property. You will die.".

    As to your question about burnoffs; of course burnoffs are regularly done onsite. There's a dedicated fire truck on site, large tanks of water, fire pumps, a trained staff fire team, assistance from the local RFS. Every few years they burn off different sections of the mountain and the surrounding national park. Using a coordinated, evidence based approach (ie, not the method you would use if you typically read The Daily Smellograph and other Is Your News Limited? publications).

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