Sunday, January 13, 2013

siding spring observatory fires

i work for the australian astronomical observatory, which maintains and operates several telescopes at siding spring observatory - the largest optical observatory in australia.   i've spent many nights out at the observatory over the past 2 years, and always enjoy the ~7 hour drive northwest from sydney to get there.

today, bushfires swept through the warrumbungle national park, which grows around the observatory.   the observatory was officially evacuated by the NSW rural fire service sometime around 4pm today.  i received an email notification and then started watching websites, twitter, and the facebook pages of my colleagues for updates. 

all SSO staff evacuated the observatory to coonabarabran safely, and then we were left to watch images on the all-sky webcams.   dark smoke clouds cover the view...

then the NSW rural fire service posted this image, and i started to cry.   that's the 4-meter AAT, the telescope i use when i go. 

here is a view from about 30 minutes later.  

on instagram,  mr_unicomb posted this image from coonabarabran:

the AAO's website showed the recorded temperature scale, with an incredible peak above 100 degrees C (212 F)!!

but the temperature has receded and hopefully the worst is done.

there are 12 telescopes on site.  you can watch a timelapse of the 12 hours leading up to the flames from the LCOGT telescope at siding spring: here.

bush fires tore through the mt stromlo observatory near canberra, exactly 10 years ago this week.  i remember the event in detail as it happened when i was a graduate student.   as a result of those fires, many measures were taken to protect telescopes at SSO.   tomorrow we will see how well those protections held. 

as of 19:40, we know that some damage has occurred at the observatory, but the webcams are still functional.   i remain hopeful. 

UPDATE (20:00, sydney local time, 13 Jan 2013): Astronomers cannot communicate with the SkyMapper telescope remotely, but the 2.3m telescope is still talking to computers and working. fire service has confirmed there is damage at the observatory, and two nearby properties have been destroyed.   :(

UPDATE (20:20):  the MOPRA radio telescope that lives in the valley close to siding spring is offline.  no communication.   but astronomers are hopeful that the telescope is ok, as the wind was pushing the fire elsewhere when they lost contact.

Last visual communication from MOPRA
the recently constructed iTelescope facility has power and communication to site on siding spring. 

UPDATE (20:40):  the sun has set at siding spring.   a friend in nearby coona says small flames are visible through her camera on the hills below and around the observatory.  winds are blowing north, away from siding spring, thankfully.

UPDATE (20:47): another shot from MOPRA.   this one was at 17:58, 45 minutes before the one above was taken. 

UPDATE (20:55):  perspective from australian nobel laureate, brian schmidt (via facebook):
I have had what has to be a quintessential experience of the current era- watching a fire front pass through Siding Springs Observatory live, via the internet, using all of the remote observing information we have on various telescopes, while getting simultaneous news and views via twitter. In 2003, when MSO burned down, I got a single SMS from the Great Melbourne Telescope - which told me its temperature reading was out of range - 75C. The GMTs replacement, SkyMapper, only reached 65 today (although the AAT did make well over 100C), and while it is currently off-line - is clearly not a cinder like the GMT was a few minutes at the fire went through 9 years and 360 days ago. I fear a lot of damage has been done though, even if not the wholesale destruction we faced in 2003 at MSO. Tomorrow will tell, and then will come the long, slow process of recovery.

UPDATE (21:09): fires visible on siding springs from the LCOGT live webcams:

UPDATE (21:40): a timelapse video from the MOPRA telescope in the valley near siding spring.  it ends at sunset, so doesnt reflect the current situation (lots of flames up on siding spring):

UPDATE (21:49): as an observer was leaving siding spring today around 3:30 pm, after the official evacuation was called, he took this photo of SSO during the drive out.

leaving SSO this afternoon. (credit: tom shanks)
i havent said it yet, but a massive thank you to the NSW fire services.   they are incredibly brave and capable people. 

UPDATE (22:01): it appears now, according to the LCOGT cameras, that some building are close to, or on fire now.   these could include houses where staff members live, the lodge where astronomers stay (note: no one is on the mountain at this time), and the kitchen and dining room where astronomers eat while observing.

UPDATE (22:10): fire services need bandwidth and access to the webcams and have asked us to stay off of them, so i am.  tomorrow will be a long day.

UPDATE (22:30)  one webcam is mirrored to ANU, and this photo was just captured (credit: brian schmidt)... electronics are not surviving this heat.

UPDATE (23:00): the NSW rural fire services just posted an emergency statement on their website.  the fire is still strong, but moving away from coonabarabran (where are the SSO astronomers and staff are currently) and away from siding spring.   conditions are still too dangerous at site for anyone to go and assess the current damage.   it will have to wait until tomorrow. 

UPDATE (23:15):  good news!  astronomers are able to get readings from the 2.3 meter telescope on siding spring.  the interior temperature is ok (20 C).

a reminder, please stay off any webcams that access SSO, so that fire services can use them.

UPDATE (23:55):  follow major updates from the NSW fire services here.  feel free to leave updates in the comments.

i'm going to sleep (hopefully) and will give appropriate updates in the morning when i hear them.   many probably won't be good, i fear, but i'm relieved to know that all my friends and colleagues working at SSO were evacuated in time.  equipment is replaceable but people are not.  thank you all for your kind words of encouragement and your news updates.    good night.

ps.  i'll leave you with my favorite photo ever from siding spring.   this is the view early one morning, looking out at the warrumbungles from the catwalk around the 4 meter AAT telescope.

1) the story of what was discovered the first day after the fire:  siding spring observatory fires, the next day.

2) the second day: SSO - as the smoke clears.

3) the third day: SSO - day three.

4) the fourth day: SSO - day four.

5) one week after: SSO - one week later.

6) a week and a half: SSO - a week of waiting.

7) two and a half weeks: SSO - clean up begins.

8) almost three weeks: SSO - before and after fires.

9) almost ready to open: SSO - burn scars.

10) one month later: SSO - return to science.

11) two months later: SSO - regrowth.

12) April 2013: SSO opens to the public.

13) January 2014: SSO one year later.


ALOHA said...

let's hope the best.

Simon Pockley said...

My property, 'Wheoh' is just to the north of the Mopra radio telescope in a gap in the mountains known as Bugaldie gap. It's difficult from Melbourne to get any updates and I would appreciate any news when it comes to hand. Best wishes, Simon Pockley []

UncySpam said...

My Wife is Jenni Martin (used to live at Mullionkale). All information we have is second and third hand, so please do not place too much faith in its veracity at this point, however we have been told that there is property damage on Blackburns Hill, Tibuc Rd. and through to Miniland. No confirmation of what properties have been damaged.

I have also been told that fires are now over to the Baradine Rd. Tip, however no confirmation on that one at all.

If you want to contact us to get any further information I will also email you so you have my email address.


mackey said...

Hope the damage is at its minimum.

Ggreybeard said...

Amanda, thank you for this incredible update. I hope visual inspections tomorrow prove that most of the equipment has survived.

Roger Powell
Macarthur Astronomical Society

Unknown said...

Best wishes Astopixie! I hope SSO gets by ok!

Anonymous said...

Really sad to see this. I sincerely hope for the best when the fire clears. I know the mitigation efforts that have been implemented will certainly help limit the damage. Good luck.


Ian Musgrave said...

Thanks for this Amanda, I have a friend who was up on the mountain, he said everyone was to evacuated, so I'm glad of the confirmation he's safe.

It will be a tremendous loss if the scopes go, but people are irreplaceable.

tonybarry said...

Thank you Amanda for the updates. I note the auto dome reports have ceased at 21:36 which is not a good sign. Hoping for the best ...

Tony Barry

Unknown said...

Our family visited SSO last week. We are concerned for all of you. We stayed at the Warrumbungle Mountains Hotel for four days and met the owners family.

We are hoping for the best it is such a beautiful and important part of Australia.

Thanks for this very informative posting and we are happy everyone evacuated ok.

Ed & Cristina Hewer.

Jonti said...

Amanda - thank you so much for the running updates all evening. Its a horrible thing, seeing such a wonderful place threatened in this way - but its been great to be able to get good information from your blog (the rest of the internet hasn't been so helpful!).

I just had a nosy at the temperature data for the AAT, which is archived on the website below, and zooming in, I'm feeling slightly more hopeful than I was earlier. The magenta line is the temperature inside the dome, while the yellow one is the outside air temperature.

Even thought the temperature outside spiked up to over 100, it looks like the dome stayed cool, maybe reaching the high 20s.

The weather data was downloaded from the AAT weather database, at .

Also looking at the data history stored on that site, it seems it only got above 50 degrees C outside the dome for five minutes, between 4:23pm and 4:28pm. So maybe at least the AAT might have made it through intact...

Fingers crossed the morning brings good news.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great updates Amanda. We are all safe. We spent much of the night glued to our laptops monitoring the webcams. We are hopeful that SSO survived MOSTLY intact. The iTelescope Obs is safe. Not sure about some structures on the the other side of the ridge at this stage...beat regards..Pete

Nick 20LUN said...

Thanks for the Update Amanda Its good to know that no one at SSO was hurt - Buildings and electronic's can be replaced

Anonymous said...

From South Florida, in USA, we are hoping for the best news possible. Thanks for your blog.

fotoeins | Henry said...

Great job, Amanda - kudos on a fine job of tracking! It's 530pm in Cologne - 330am in Sydney, as I write; so I hope you're sleeping well!

Eva said...

I just woke up to find all of this. Thank you for a thorough account, as painful as it is to read it. Crossing fingers so the damage is minimal.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the informations and images on your blog. I used your blog as a way to keep being updated on the siding spring fire.
Fingers crossed to hope that the anti-fire stuff protected enough the telescopes.

Jean-Philippe (from France).

Elaine G. said...

Saw about the fire 10.30 UK time - my brother Tom was out there - so it was great to see they had all got out and even to see the pic he took as they left on your blog. Let's hope the damage isn't too great. You did a great job keeping us all informed and puting my mind at rest.


Bev said...

Thanks for the updates. Like living the Stromlo fires all over, except for -- I hope -- better telescope protection, and communications.
Anxiously waiting.

Bev W. -- McDonald Obs, Austin, TX

Ellie said...

Hoping the best for the staff and telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory. Thanks for the updates and I'm anxiously awaiting more news.

Elinor -- Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, CA

Unknown said...

Love the last photo. Sometimes telescopes and clouds DO go together.

Still hoping for the best.

Anonymous said...

Have Just recieved an Update from The Observatory via the RFS Website- Current as of 9:08 This Morning- It staes that some Buildings onsite appear to have been Damaged- But the Main Telescope appears to have Survived, Although no noe can tell if this too has been Damaged, Let;s hope that it has not got too much damage if any

cm220 said...

I have updated the "Siding Spring Observatory" Wikipedia page with the basic info that faciity was threatened by fire, "visitors' centre was badly damaged " & some other buildings damaged. The page lacks sources so if 'astropixie' and others reading this blog could help to improve the page it would be good! :)

Hanka said...

My husband and I visited the SSO in 2007, it was one of the most unforgetable experiences being in the presence of such an amazing piece of equipment, it was incredible. We also experienced the Vic Black Saturday bushfires so thank you for your blog updates. My thoughts are with your Team and the safety of the people in the surrounding areas.

Andy Green said...

Was only there in November with Rob McNaught, I hear his house has been burnt down? Hope you, Fred et al are all safe.

Anonymous said...

Hope everybody is safe and we keep fingers crossed so the damage won't be fatal for the SSO...

Simon Pockley said...

Thanks for this blog Amanda. There is mounting frustration at the lack of communication for us the people who live in the mountains who are not allowed back in to assess the damage to our lives. I built my house (by hand) in a high pass (Bugaldie gap) in 1976 and still know nothing.

Unknown said...

Wow those are some awesome but scary siding We don't see too much of that in Calgary.

Anonymous said...

Good to hear everybody is safe.
Hope the facilities did not suffer too much damage and that SSO can recover soon.

All the best,

St├ęphane G.

Jennifer said...

Nothing to say on this without empirical evidence. Looking for positive results of investigation.

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Joseph Chklovski said...

Thanks for giving such an informative post. It has lots of information about Astronomy And Space. We can get more information from your post.

Anonymous said...

Great work with your blog and reports. As someone born and raised in the general district (68 years ago) but now watching from afar in the US, I have really appreciated the chance to follow updates and learn of the good news (which seems to have outweighed the bad although the losses are heartbreaking). I recall walking those valleys and peaks and gazing at the spires of the Warrumbungles, as a boy, and then marveling at the arrival of a Sydney tram to be used as accommodation at the old ranger's hut. Years later, we were overjoyed at the arrival of the SSO as it grew into a world class facility, and, joy of joys, a sealed access road into the valley. So, I feel a connection with the Park, and of course, the SSO - any visit back home invariably includes a visit up the hill. Again, many thanks for your personal efforts, and hooray for the lucky escape. Best wishes to you all, and your amazing work. Colin

Caloundra Bookkeepers said...

I'm Hoping for the best for the staff and telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory for the jb well done! Thanks for the infrmations you've shared to us.

Opal said...

That's such a loss! I hope the recovery of both the equipment and the natural landscape goes smoothly.

Unknown said...

What are the areas in Australia susceptible to bushfire incidents?