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Two Years After the Bobcat Wildfire, Pasadena Fire Department Utilizing Lessons Learned

Nation watched as local firefighters fought epic battle to save Mt. Wilson

Published on Tuesday, September 13, 2022 | 5:38 am
 

In 2020, the Bobcat Fire started on Sept. 6. The blaze grew to become one of the largest fires on record in Los Angeles County and spectacularly came within feet of burning buildings atop Mt. Wilson, buildings not only considered among the crown jewels of astronomy but also home to infrastructure that transmits cell phone signals and television and radio broadcasts for the greater Los Angeles Area.

Over 103 days the Bobcat Fire charred 115,796 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena and prompted evacuation in Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre and Bradbury. 

But the fire also provided important lessons to local fire officials.

“The Bobcat Fire, as well as numerous other recent devastating wildfires, have reinforced the reality that disasters can strike with minimal notice,” said Pasadena Fire Chief Chad Augustin. “With fire season being almost year-round, it is imperative that we remain diligent.  Due to the heightened awareness, Pasadena Fire has a unique opportunity to ensure our residents take heed and are prepared for any disaster through education, preparation, and training.”

The Bobcat Fire was the first major wildfire since the Station fire in 2009 devastated the Angeles National Forest leaving two firefighters dead, 120 structures destroyed and 160,577 acres scorched. That fire was the biggest in Los Angeles County history.

In the Bobcast Fire, nearly 6,000 structures were threatened, six people were injured. The fire damaged 28 residences and destroyed 27 others.

“PFD realizes that no agency can handle every event by themselves; we must utilize partnerships with other local, State, and Federal agencies,” Augustin said. “We have been working diligently to ensure we train regularly with neighboring fire agencies to steer clear of a fire from growing to a devastating size.  Furthermore, we also have been working on updating outdated mutual aid agreements.”  

Flames advance on Mt. Wilson’s vital communications towers on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 at about 10 p.m. (Image courtesy HPWREN, a University of California San Diego partnership project led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics)

The fire also came within 50 feet of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

On Sept. 14, officials at the observatory posted a letter on its website, saying the Bobcat Fire was “rapidly” heading towards the observatory and could reach it that day.

“As of Sunday night, it has crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon, passed Chantry Flats, and is headed rapidly upslope towards Mount Wilson. The fire will probably be upon us today.”

Observatory officials had taken steps to help firefighters.

Before their evacuation, key mountain personnel connected fire hoses to all the hydrants and laid them across the roads or other spots where they would be very evident to the firefighters. This made it instantly evident where all the observatory hydrants when fire crews arrived and substituted their own hoses.

And the observatory’s 520,000 gallon reservoir was full at the time, which gave fire crews great confidence and allowed them to take the fight to further reaches than might otherwise have been possible. 

Firefighters used about half the amount of water in the reservoir and eventually saved the observatory.

Although Pasadena has not faced a major wildfire this summer, other areas around the state have not been as fortunate.

Currently firefighters across the state are battling 11 major blazes that have burned 325,000 acres. 

In 2017, a retired climatologist said that California will continue to experience deadly wildfires in large part due to climate change, California’s burgeoning population and people who choose to live dangerously in previously unpopulated wooded areas.

According to William Patzert, the temperature in California has risen by two to three degrees Fahrenheit over the past 25 years, but in the summer months it is six to eight degrees hotter than it used to be when heat waves lasted from August to September, as opposed to the hotter temperatures the region now suffers with from July to October.

George Ellery Hale. (Photo courtesy University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf6-00263r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Since 2015 more dangerous fires have broken out across the state, burning longer due to increasing temperatures. Since 2015, seven of the 12 most destructive fires in the country have happened in California.

The rise of more intense fires has led the department to take action.

Since the fire, the Pasadena Fire Department has been working on its first-ever, city-wide evacuation plan and expanding its partnership with the Pasadena Police Department. The two agencies would be paramount in maintaining public safety in a city wide emergency.

“While I hope that we will never need to use this emergency plan, it gives me comfort to know that we will have one in place,” Augustin said. “ To help with our evacuation plan, we have been working with a consultant who is the industry leader in evacuation planning.” 

This evacuation plan will involve stakeholder feedback from multiple areas of the city.  We will have town-hall-style meetings to assist with gathering community feedback.  It is my goal to have a final product by November 1.”

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The video at the top of this story of the Bobcat Fire at Mt. Wilson was, incredibly, blended and stitched together from approximately 86,000 images taken from the HPWREN cameras atop Mt. Wilson. It was published on YouTube by Siobhán Dougall.

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