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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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  • by fredan (54788) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @04:20PM (#42576891) Homepage Journal
    is that they got an telescope so they can actually see the bushfire!
    • The bad part is that they had to cut funding for the local fire brigade.

      • by fredan (54788)

        wait, what?

        So they can't see the bushfire with their current telescope since the money for a new telescope to see the bushfire actually went to the fire brigade?!?!

      • by HJED (1304957)
        The government funded local fire brigades usually aren't the ones fighting bushfires that's the job of the rfs which is a volunteer organization.
  • by demonlapin (527802) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:06PM (#42577119) 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.
    • by dwywit (1109409) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:16PM (#42577189)

      2 reasons. The size of the area to be burnt, and funding.
       
      When you have limited funds, you have to be very selective where you spend it doing this years' choice of burns. Rural Fire Brigades (at least here in Qld) have to do a lot of fundraising to stay afloat - they're volunteers, and one of the few charities I always support when the phone rings to sell me raffle tickets.

      • by rolfwind (528248)

        When someone does call, make sure it's a local volunteer and not some firm outsourced for a percentage of the cut. Otherwise find a way to give directly.

        • by dwywit (1109409)

          Good point - I think it's local, though. I won a consolation prize, once - 2 smoke alarms, a fire blanket, backpack, cap, AND a Garmin Nuvi!. When the next call came I told the caller I'd be happy to buy double tickets, because of the prize. He started talking about what a great little package of items it was, and he had been given the package for some reason - so that makes me think it wasn't outsourced to a city call centre.

    • by Megahard (1053072)

      He lied so much his pants ignite often.

    • by FirephoxRising (2033058) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:43PM (#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.
    • The Hollywood hills keep catching fire for similar geographical reasons, it's not becuase of a lack of common sense or back burning.
    • 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.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Australia's natural environmental balance is to have ridiculously large bushfires sweep across the continent every summer. There are plant species that rely on bushfires to flourish! So technically by putting the fires OUT we are being un-environmental...

      • by tconnors (91126) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @10:51PM (#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 Sunday January 13, 2013 @11:06PM (#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).

      • by HJED (1304957)
        In fact environmentalists actively support backburning in Australia because a large part of our native trees and plant are dependent on being burnt every few years
  • by hde226868 (906048) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @05:25PM (#42577255) Homepage
    This is a place to bring my favorite joke by Virginia Trimble: "It is Siding Spring Observatory, not Siding Springs, this being Australia, after all". I hope that the damage is small. This is the most beautiful observatory site I have been observing at. and it would be a shame to see the telescopes damaged. Not only the AAT, but also the smaller telescopes on that site have been very productive.
    • First Stromlo, now Coonabarabran.

      Coonabarabran is a nice little town for active geeks - great hiking during the day, actual starlight at night. I can't wait to visit in the Wintertime.
    • 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.

      • by Tapewolf (1639955) on Sunday January 13, 2013 @08:30PM (#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.

  • Didn't see that coming did you?
  • If you have something valuable which may be endangered by burning plants nearby, remove the plants and ensure they don't grow back.

    I had a number of pines too near my houses. A chainsaw solved that nicely. I don't have flammable brush near my shop. I mow and use total vegetation killer for the hard-to-mow bits.

    • That helps, but in severe conditions, as we are having now, it is still no guarantee. The problem of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ember_attack [wikipedia.org] after people are evacuated means that even building that are hundreds of meters from the fire can still burn down. The strategy in NSW is to evacuate if there is any risk to life, so we have the situation where many buildings have been lost but so far no lives.
    • by jkflying (2190798)

      We had an old house in a sandy, scrubby area that had plenty of room around it and still burnt down when a bushfire came through. The firefighter said that the air was so hot that it heated the wood under the corrugated iron roof until it spontaneously caught on fire.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Perhaps the value of "plenty" was not sufficiently plenty.

        In any case, the real failure is all this building with flammable materials in places that burn. This has been fucking stupid for a very long time. We have many available building materials that won't burst into flame due to heat, notably including dirt and steel.

        • by jkflying (2190798)

          It was brick walls and corrugated iron roofing, so I wouldn't say it was particularly susceptible to fire. There was some grass just outside the house that didn't burn, so clearly the heat was only higher up. The only weak point was that the wood inside the roof, under the metal, was ~70 years old so was extremely dry. The heat was so intense once the house caught alight that all the windowpanes melted.

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            Doesn't that strike you as a bit nutty? Build everything but the roof with fireproof materials? I realize that steel has issues in severe heat, but it takes more heat to deform steel than to light old wood on fire...

    • Conditions have been quite bad the last week or so, by which I mean fires have been spotting 20 kms ahead of the firefront - that means that your firebreak would need to be 20 kms wide to be effective. Also, the fire in question covers 40000 hectares. Check out this site (Click on Wambelong for the fire in question) http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/dsp_content.cfm?cat_id=683 [nsw.gov.au]. The large blacked out patches on the map are what burnt last wednesday.

      I don't think your chainsaw will cut it, pun intended.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      I think you might be surprised just how large that "nearby" area is during a large Australian bushfire. Whichever deity designed the Australian bush was clearly a pyromaniac.

  • I beleive this is a brushfire, not a bushfire. Bush is the singular, brush is the pural (www.dictionary.com Brush - a dense growth of bushes, shrubs). Now I could be wrong, this could have been a REALLY big bush, but otherwise it is brushfire.

    Side note : A bushfire is more commonly known as a STD (sexually transmitted disease)

    • by Occams (2422082)
      The "bush" means outside of the densly populated area. It has nothing to do with shrubbery, bushes or brush.
  • George W. Bush.

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