Monday, January 14, 2013

siding spring obs. fires: day after

read my original post last night about bush fires hitting siding springs observatory.

now it is morning time the next day.   very early.   i slept soundly for a few hours.

what i know:  all people are safe.   yay!  firefighters are currently onsite at siding spring.    they say there is some damage to facilities, but they have not assessed the extent.

Morning view via LCOGT
the sun has risen and the first images available show positive signs of buildings standing where we saw evidence of small fires last night.  the main 4-meter telescope has survived the flame - which is good, as it is the designated fire evacuation area on the mountain.

here is a slower timelapse (from brad tucker) of the weather cameras outside the LCOGT telescope on SSO.   it covers most of yesterday and last night after darkness hit:

is case youre not clear where siding spring is located, here's a map:

Location of Siding Spring Observatory, Australia (Credit: LCOGT)
thanks for all your feedback, everyone.  i'll keep this page updated throughout the day.

UPDATE (08:00): the LCOGT cameras show the NSW rural fire service on site at siding spring.

the mayor of coona said this morning that the NSW RFS report the astronomer's lodge on site has been destroyed, but other buildings appear intact.   if the scopes are operational, i'll take my tent to sleep in!  ;)  (well, only if i get official permission, of course...)

UPDATE (08:20):  a photo from ryan unicomb, which must be an aerial shot from NSW RFS, but i'm not sure of their link (update: link).  you can see the burned patches go right up to the telescopes - the top right shows the skymapper and the square box houses the 2.3 meter.  not sure what the diagonal dark line indicates across that dome  the dark diagonal line shows stairs going to the top of the building.

UPDATE (08:35):  wow.  this is/was the astronomer's lodge, where we slept and ate while observing.  photo from NSW RFS:

UPDATE (09:00): from accounts i'm hearing, the structural destruction on the mountain is limited to the astronomer's lodge, the visitor's center, and a few of the staff homes.   the telescope facilities are intact, some are responding to computer communication from remote locations, but i cannot give more details than that for now.

in preparation for this possibility, and because of the fires in mt stromlo ten years ago, some measures have been taken over the years to help reduce the damage of bush fires at siding spring.  there have been controlled fires over the last six months, to rid the area of small fuel.  also, the facilities have mesh installed to repel embers from spreading fires too rapidly.

NSW RFS have reported that about a dozen homes near siding spring have been destroyed.   so sad. 

UPDATE (09:10):  the sydney morning herald's front page this morning quotes a witness as saying, "it looked like an atomic bomb":

UPDATE (09:30):  for those who are not familiar with the siding spring observatory, the site is owned and operated by the australian national university in canberra.  many telescopes are operated by the australian astronomical observatory (my employer) including the 4-meter anglo-australian telescope - the largest optical telescope in australia.  here is a list of all the telescopes at siding spring:

ANU 2.3m Telescope
ANU Skymapper Telescope
Uppsala Near Earth Object Survey Telescope
3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope
United Kingdom Schmidt Telescope
Hat-South Telescope Network
Solaris Telescope
Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment – ROTSE
UNSW Automated Patrol Telescope
Faulkes Telescope South
ANU 40 inch Telescope (decommissioned)
ANU 16 inch Telescope (decommissioned)
ANU 24 inch Telescope (decommissioned)

UPDATE (09:50): here is a photo of the destroyed director's cottage at SSO (from NSW RFS).  the structure on the left is/was the astronomer's lodge.  at the top right, you can see the UK schmid telescope and the faulkes south - where the webcams captured a lot of helpful images last night!  you can see the pedestrian path in the foreground leading to the 4m AAT off to the right of the photo.

UPDATE (09:55):  another shot of siding springs from NSW RFS (have i mentioned that they have been amazing and continue to fight the ongoing fire!).  the massive AAT dome looks ok.  the destroyed lodge is visible at left.  still waiting for the "smoke to clear."

we are having a group meeting now to receive official updates on the situation at SSO.  i'll update with what info i can!

UPDATE (10:45):  there will be a two week downtime at siding spring while clean up commences and the full extent of the damage is assessed.   some staff are on site now and reporting no obvious major damage to facilities and instrumentation (other than the housing structures i mentioned before).

a project i work on was scheduled to use the 4 m telescope tonight and for the next 3 nights!   no data for us, but people are safe, and that's important.

observing will resume as soon as possible, when damage is fully assessed and cleaned.

UPDATE (11:05):  the MOPRA telescope structure appears to be fine, but the building from which astronomers operate it has been damaged by the fires.

UPDATE (11:10):  here is the current view of australia from space, thanks to chris hadfield, an astronaut currently on the international space station!!

UPDATE (11:35): here is an aerial shot of the visitor center at siding spring (from NSW RFS).   it doesnt look like there is much structural damage from this photo, but there are black patches outside the main entrance that are likely due to fire damage.  from reports i've heard, there was fire inside that was exstinguished this morning.  i do not know the extent of the damage to the contents, yet.

UPDATE (11:44):  there is a relevant article at the conversation with quotes from my self, nobel laureate brian schmidt, and astronomer michael brown.

UPDATE (12:55):  the ANU will be holding a press conference at 13:15 (link).

UPDATE (13:00):  i'm doing a virtual star party on and off for the next hour.  (link here)

UPDATE (13:40):  fires near coonabarabran continue.  do not return or try to explore area. 

from ANU press statement:

- observatory closed for two weeks.  do not try to visit.
- generators are providing power to essential services, and the switch over was smooth - good to systems which would have glitched if not turned off properly. 
- unclear when roads to siding springs will reopen.
- ANU is assessing alternative accommodation for affected staff

- NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner reports 28 homes around coonabarabran have been lost
- smoke from "Wambelong Fire" shot 14 km into the air!

UPDATE (13:45): watch ABC news here.  (which includes an interview with AAO acting director, andrew hopkins, with completely blank book shelves behind him!   haha - new office...)

UPDATE (14:49):  just reminiscing a bit about working with the 4m AAT.  at night, we use the telescope and the instruments.  during the days, when we're not sleeping, we climb around enjoying the views.  ::sigh::

double rainbow from the AAT catwalk

from the top of the AAT dome
UPDATE (13:00):  the AAO website has released some new photos of siding spring via the NSW RFS.  it's pretty amazing that the AAT dome looks so clean and there is still a lot of plant life remaining!

Photo of AAT (from AAO and RFS)

UPDATE (15:50): not how i was hoping the telescope would make front page news :(

UPDATE (16:00):   brian schmidt remembers the devastating mt stromlo fires that hit canberra exactly ten years ago this week:  link to article.

UPDATE (16:05):  the MOPRA antenna does not appear to be damaged (visible at the top of the image below), but the support building (with the kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom and small office) is a pile of rubble.  no CSIRO staff can access the site until tomorrow at the earliest.

UPDATE (17:00):  the NSW Rural Fire Service confirmed 33 homes (and 50 sheds) lost due to the "wambelong" fire near coonabarabran and siding spring.  some of these homes belong to people i consider friends.   i'm very sad to report the news.

UPDATE (17:30):  there are still some fires burning in the vicinity of coonabarabran, but the observatory is not under direct threat now.  siding spring observatory is officially closed to everyone unless authorized by the rural fire service (including observatory staff).   therefore all observing is suspended for two weeks (at least) and the full damage assessment is delayed until wednesday (it is currently monday late afternoon SSO local time).   major telescope facilities appear to be ok and communication has been made with several of the computer systems from remote locations.

unless something major develops, i will not update this post anymore, because i have a major deadline tomorrow and i need to concentrate.   THE SCIENCE WILL GO ON, despite the fact that i'm not getting the data from the AAT that i was scheduled to get over the next 4 nights :(   i'll start another post about the situation when i have more info, and the AAO website will keep updated.

as a final reflection, please look at beautiful photos, taken by AAO's angel lopez-sanchez, of SSO between 2007 and 2012:  link HERE.

and finally, a stunning panoramic image taken 4 months ago of the milky way over siding spring and the 4-meter anglo-australian telescope, by AAO's jamie gilbert.

the milky way over siding spring (credit: jamie gilbert)

report of the second day after the fire: SSO - as the smoke clears.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the updates.
i saw the pictures last night and feared the worst.

Anonymous said...

Same here - your blogging about SSO is much appreciated.

Ian@VSSEC said...

I was on Mt Stromlo in the morning before it was burnt in 2002. I didn't believe something built in aluminium and concrete could burn so badly. I am glad Siding Spring hasn't suffered as much and that everyone was evacuated in good time. Thanks for your info. I only discovered the risk to the observatory when I opened the paper this morning. It is good to have news from today rather than last night.

Anonymous said...

Photos from NSW RFS online at

Rob Hollow said...

The diagonal line on the 2.3m is the external staircase to the roof so nothing amiss there. Glad to see all the telescopes intact. Hopefully no/minimal heat & smoke damage inside.

Gordon said...

The diagonal line in the photo is the steps up to the roof.
Thanks for your updates! I worked at SSO from 1993-1996 and 2002 to 2011, and am glad to see most buildings survived, including Cottage 5, where I stayed. I was watching the HAT South webcam and all-sky until the feed went off air yesterday and saw the flames advance and retreat a few times.

Anonymous said...

'dark line' on the 2.3m dome is just the outside metal stairs, I think - stairway is unpainted, so looks darker than the dome

noswonky said...

This blog and you twitter feed have been the best sources of information about the observatory throughout this fire emergency. Thanks for the great work.

skywatcher88 said...

Hello Amanda
Glad you are safe and hopefully the rest of the residents of the area are too including the four legged furry ones! All I can really say is WOW !
Mother nature can be beautiful and destructive as well.Nothing is permanent.Things will grow back and buildings can be rebuilt!
Peace and Clear Skies !

Ian@VSSEC said...

How do we suggest that NSWRFS photo as APOD? Or even Amateur APOD?

Unknown said...

ian - good suggestion! here's a link to APOD with contact info:

Anonymous said...

I hope this near miss is enough for Siding Spring to invest in a 100,000 L water tank (3x30,000L for around $9K) and a 4" firse pump ($1k) With that and some hose the areaaround the observatory could have been drenched. Seems like a good $10K one off insurance premium. Rain run off should fill the tank in time.

Ian@VSSEC said...

Thanks Amanda. Suggestion has been submitted.

Unknown said...

Can anyone update on visitor centre damage asap as there were some unique items there. (Particularly the models)

Unknown said...

edward - i know they extinguished the fires at the visitor center only this morning, but i have not seen photos or heard specific reports. i will post what i find out.

Barry Brook said...

One of the RFS photos shows the Visitor's Centre fairly clearly, and it looks to be intact:

Unknown said...

That pic looks as though building is sound so that is good sign. The meteorite samples will be ok at least!

Ggreybeard said...


I doubt whether most Australians will even realise how close we came to completely losing a unique, state of the art research facility. I hope there is only a short break before science is resumed.

Reading your blog and following the events on Twitter yesterday has been rivetting and alarming.

Please keep going with your eye-opening posts!

Roger Powell
Macarthur Astronomical Society

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your most helpful and informative posts.
I must say, having seen the devastation at Mt Stromlo a decade ago, and having some experience of the 'chimney effect' on fires racing up slopes to facilities on hilltops, that I'm really surprised that planners allowed vegetation to remain in the vicinity of these priceless facilities. I suspect that environmentalist pressures once again have led to a most costly lack of planning for the inevitability of brushfire attack.
Hearing that temperatures of over 100 deg C were recorded at the telescopes makes it inevitable that serious damage must have occurred, I'm afraid...

Tim Connors said...

Anonymous 1: there are very large firefighting tanks on site. There's also a fire truck, and pumps everywhere. But there's only 1 road off, and staff are more important than property, so everyone was evacuated. Hence no manning the pumps (although I think RFS were onsite at some stage watering things down).

Anonymous 2: Most astronomers appreciate the natural world, hence why we became scientists and astronomers. We don't tend to rip and burn everything, and plan accordingly. 'course, ripping and burning won't protect you from these catastrophic level of fires that can race across a km of bare earth at 60km/h burning the air in front of them.

Gordon said...

The outside temperature recording and wind speed would be from the weather station at the north end of the car park, between the workshop (large building adjoining the AAT dome, and one of the cottages. The bitumen adjoining that cottage has a shed and carport at its eastern end, and I saw in the photos that they were destroyed. I was monitoring the AAT weather feed and saw that 104.2C appear, so I knew fire was spreading amongst the trees near the cottages. After the Mt Stromlo fires, a major hazard reduction program was undertaken around SSO, including removal of many trees on the site and along Observatory Rd, especially the overhanging ones, to help maintain access under conditions like what has just been experienced. Periodic hazard reduction burns have also been carried out in the bush surrounding the observatory, much of which is in Warrumbungles NP. All the buildings on site have had heavy mesh screens installed over windows and doors, and many buildings were painted with intumescent paint to help protect them.
All of these measures, along with the efforts of the RFS and National Parks have been important in minimising the amount of damage done by this fire.

Unknown said...

When I visited two weeks ago I noted the big telescope was very well protected from fire. It would have to be a canopy fire and linger near the site for a long time to do any damage as there was significant distance from the tree line to the telescope. I don't know about other areas as they are restricted to visitors.

The temps that were recorded were from the weather station only and was only for a short spike in time. (Amazing that the equipment dutifully recorded it all)

Alberto said...

Dear Amanda, thanks a lot for your comments over these last days. I was an astronomer at UNSW for almost three years and spent many nights both at AAO and the 2.3m telescope, and SSO remains my favourite observatory since then. I´ve been following your updates, and just wanted to let you know personally that your effort is deeply thanked.

Best luck with your deadline and with your work at AAO. Cheers,


ALOHA said...

Thank you for all the updates. Good luck for whatever the deadline is for.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your updates Amanda! Glad to hear that everyone is safe. Hopefully the damage can be repaired soon and AAO can resume its activities and surprise us with more wonderful science.

Greetings from the antipodes.

fire said...

No flammable materials = no fire hazard. Clearly nice views were considered more important then fire safety.

I like nature too so I can understand it but still the facts remain - those who made the call to leave vegetation in 1km radius of the facility are partly responsible for the damage. A proper buffer zone + no flammable materials on site would all but eliminate potential damage from fires.

Unknown said...

Site management had many things to consider. It is always easy to highlight one deficiency in retrospect. Few compliment plans that work because there was no problem.

In prospect was a fire of unknown timing and severity. They planned and in the worst case fire that happened the high value instruments and structures seem to have survived passively. Most of the planning seems to have worked adequately in a worst case event.

I don't know if it was all passive, the presence of spotters implies some units in the area, they don't usually just take happy snaps of fires.

If staff had stayed and fought as some of their plans would have considered there would be blame about injuries or heart attacks.

Clearing the land would present a dust problem and thermal changes, assuming they could even get permission to clear. If a telescope was offline because of gritted up optics and drive motors there would also be blame.

Bookkeeper Caloundra said...

We hope for safety and fast recovery for those casulaties. Btw, I like your rainbow view. There's hope for them.