Fire on Mt. Wilson

This is the kind of problem that literally keeps engineers up at night October 19, 2017
The 2009 Station Fire, as seen from Mt Wilson Observatory.

Anyone following the news knows that fires have been rampant across California this year. The downside of a rainy winter is that is makes for great growing conditions for weeds and shrubbery, which later dry out and make great fuel during the fire season, which is especially dangerous during October. We often refer to it as “earthquake weather,” but in fact the heat and dry conditions are the key ingredients of the fire season.

So it was not much of a surprise to me when my cell phone rang at 5:50 a.m. on Tuesday morning. It was our programming VP. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the news yet,” he said. “There’s a fire burning up on Mt. Wilson.”

Emails followed from our morning shift engineer, already on-duty at the station. He reported seeing flames up on the mountain. They were first reported at about 4:30 a.m.

For those of you not familiar with the back story: Mt Wilson suffered a very serious incident in 2009 that came to be known as the Station Fire. I wrote about it in the October 2014 issue of Radio (which you can read here). I was in New York when that happened, but I have heard endless stories about it during my time in LA. As the head of the iHeartMedia Los Angeles engineering department now, as you can imagine I had no interest in re-living all of the stress associated with that time.

Looking southeast from the observatory on Oct. 17. That's Mt Harvard in the distance.

 

BRIARCREST

Not long after getting off the phone with our programming VP, our regional engineering VP called me as well. He suggested, and I agreed, that a full functional test of our Briarcrest backup site should be carried out ASAP.

Looking down on the fire from Video Rd. Mt Harvard in the distance.

In the aftermath of the Station Fire, which in the end did not reach the summit of Mt Wilson, our company built a backup site for all four of our Mt Wilson FMs at our Beverly Hills site, home of KYSR, our fifth FM. (Most other LA stations have backup sites as well; some at Verdugo, and some at Flint Peak.)

Not the view you want to see as you approach the top of the mountain.

I had recently given Briarcrest a functional check, but I went out in the early morning light (braving traffic at the worst time of the day) and made it up to “BC.” While caught in traffic I was able to look over my shoulder and see the plume of smoke rising up over the mountain. The good news was that (as expected) BC was in full working order.

 

FIRE RESPONSE

The Los Angeles Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry were very quick to deal with the fire, which burned between Mt Wilson, and our close neighbor, Mt Harvard, home to some TVs and also KUSC(FM). Messages from engineers on-site indicated that the situation appeared to be under control. As I write this, nearly two days after it was first called in, the fire is not yet out, but the immediate danger seems to be over. I can’t relax all the way until I know the firefighters have left, though; when they’re satisfied the fire is out, I will be too.

There are circumstances that we as broadcasters cannot prevent; fire on the mountain is one of them. Having a capable auxiliary transmitter site is one way to be ready for events like this—ones for which we cannot do anything but stand by and let the firefighters do their jobs. Knowing that I had “BC” kept me from getting too stressed about the entire situation. If you don’t have backup sites for your stations, take my advice—find a way to make it happen. The heart attack you prevent later on down the road might be your own. 

 

Receive regular news and technology updates. Sign up for our free newsletter here.

Comments