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back to article Oz astronomical observatory survives firestorm

An important Australian observatory appears to have survived a firestorm that really is best told in pictures. The fire destroyed twelve properties near the outback city of Coonabarrabran. Here’s what the approaching bushfire looked like from the air, as it neared the Siding Spring Observatory at Coonabarrabran, in NSW: Fire …

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Pint

Close enough to barbecue the prawns and sausages but not close enough to warm the beer.

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Bronze badge

You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

They are living dangerously not having a 200 m vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment.

If the plexiglass covering on a camera housing melted, you can imagine what some of the wiring will be like.

And then there is the soot on the lenses.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

Been to Siding Spring, have you? Had much experience with fighting bushfires in Australia?

It's a bit pointless having a 200m vegitation exclusion zone when you're at the top of a slope that a decent bushfire will just skip straight over.

A tip o' the helmet to the RFS/CFA and all the guys and girls in it!

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Re: You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

If you look at the satellite pics there is a reasonable amount of space around most of the the instruments, all except the AAT which does get a bit close to the trees. However a lot of the support buildings do not have much of a gap, and it seems from the news that they have lost a lot of these buildings.

I tend to support the original sentiment - there wasn't enough clear ground. The site is right on the top of the hill, so a clear area that doesn't bring the fire front right to the doorstep of the facility is possible. And for the main cluster of instruments was both done, and worked. It is the fire front that does the damage. There is always the risk that blown embers will ignite a building, but the telescope facilities are mostly metal domes, and won't catch fire easily. A full force fire front however will melt them in place. In this respect distance is the only hope. It is quite possible that it was a simple ember that took out the support buildings anyway. It is a very common way to lose a building, and will take out a building sometimes well after the fire front has past.

I have both been to Siding Springs, and have experienced Oz bushfires first hand. When I vistied it was very different, I have a pic of the UK Schmidt telescope dome enveloped in cloud.

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Unhappy

Re: You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

Part of the problem as well with clearing vegetation, is that we have a huge number of tree-hugging greenie do-gooders in this country who kick up stinking blue murder every time even one tree gets cut down, let alone clearing a 200m exclusion zone.

Never mind that there might be a billion other trees just like it, or that peoples' lives and property might be at stake; according to these hippy fuckwads, not a single tree must be allowed to fall, for any reason whatsoever. In fact, more trees must be planted, preferably at any hilltop lookout with a view, because to these idiots, more trees are more important than anyone actually being able to enjoy a view of the countryside - or even the night sky.

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Bronze badge

Re: You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

The main problem with bushfires down under is ember attack. A few hundred metres of grass isn't going to stop a bushfire fueled by eucalyptus.

Smh has some incredible photos from a different fire but not too far away for some perspective.

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/it-came-up-so-quick-and-was-phenomenal-the-moment-mark-will-never-forget-20130114-2cp34.html

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Silver badge

Re: You'd think there would be a vegetation free zone around this expensive sensitive equipment

The main problem with bushfires down under is radiant heat. This radiant heat will kill a person in seconds and cause metal to melt and nearby wood to burst into flame. A few hundred metres without trees exploding into flame will drastically reduce the radiant heat at the building, saving the building and its occupants. Fortunately the radiant heat problem doesn't last long, only a minute or two as the main flame front passes: shelter inside during that time and you'll survive (be careful though, it arrives very suddenly, so go inside early because getting caught out may well be the last mistake you ever make).

The second biggest problem with bushfires down under is ember attack. Fortunately this can be dealt with by proper preparation (e.g. clearing leaf litter from gutters, removing combustible material from next to the building etc) and by post-main-fire-front mopping up of ember fires with a bucket of water.

p.s. I used to wear the uniform and hold the hose and have felt the heat.

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Flame

pity the rain is too far south

the passing drizzle outside was just too late and too far away. At least some of the fires will slow down or go out. Lets hope the astronomical kit survived and just needs new paint and covers. Flame because, just well, it is appropriate, given the number lit by the reprehensible.

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Anonymous Coward

Looks from local radar that they are finally getting a bit of rain in that region. We in Oz are always thankful for the career or volunteer personnel who put their lives on the line. Glad to see they were able to save this important facility.

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Thumb Up

Glad they dodged that bullet!

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This is a shame, but...

... equipment can be replaced.

At least the people are ok.

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Update

The news coming from the observatory this morning now that people have been able to return to the site is that that all of the telescope buildings are intact, as are most of the other structures, however the Lodge (on site accommodation for visiting astronomers and other staff on night shifts), the AAO Director's Cottage, a small storage shed and two homes on the mountain have been destroyed. The mains power lines are down and the site is now on generator power. Soot and debris have entered a number of telescope buildings and it's possible some of the smaller ones may have heat damage. A lot to clean up is required but at the moment it is thought that the observatory will be back in business in about two weeks.

The damage could have been a lot worse and the main reason it wasn't is that the people running the observatory are not, in fact, stupid (regardless of what WatAWorld thinks). The observatory does ensure no tress or shrubs grow close to any building and performs regular controlled Hazard Reduction burns in the run up to summer every year. The buildings themselves are fire hardened to various degrees, e.g. ember screens fitted to windows. Lessons were learnt from the complete destruction of the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra in bush fires in 2003, the fact that a major bush fire was able to pass through the Siding Spring Observatory without a single telescope burning down is testament to that.

The NSW Rural Fire Service also deserve credit for their tireless efforts fighting this and the other 170 odd fires currently burning in the state. They've posted photos of the aftermath of the fire at the observatory on their Facebook page, here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151382336805552.525957.213250965551&type=1

There also a story with good photos and video from the ABC here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-14/homes-destroyed-in-nsw-bushfire/4463136

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Met graph

Fortunately that graph doesn't show the the internal temperature having reached dangerous levels. The yellow and blue lines are from outside the dome (the met tower and stevenson screne is about 50m to the north of the dome, at the other end of the carpark) - blue being calculated dew point. The magenta line you see peeking out over the green line is the internal temperature at the height of the primary mirror. The green line is the 16tonne primary mirror (lots of heat capacity! Stays constant for days and has to be forcefully cooled when a temperature drop is predicted to minimise the induced "seeing"). The little red dots at the bottom indicate when the rain sensor on the other end of the workshop building (the long building jutting out the side seen in some of the aerial photographs) was triggered by the local RFS hosing things down before and (I believe) after the fire struck (fucking brave if you ask me - there's one road off the mountain, and the fire front was in that direction judging from the photos).

If the level of organisation is still like what it was when I worked there, they'll make use of the next 2 weeks to realuminise the mirror (in amongst fixing everything else up), because it would usually be due for a couple of days in February anyway as the only planned downtime every year (although I can't see it on this year's schedule), and the smoke will likely have damaged the coating.

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Re: Met graph

Unfortunately realuminising is not possible because the mirror elevator upgrade hadn't happened yet and it's considered unsafe to use the elevator for removal/reinstallation of the primary mirror until it has. We'll just have to make do with washing it again for now.

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Re: Met graph

It can be washed in-situ now? It couldn't when I was there. That should bring it back up to 82% reflectivity or so if there was no actual damage.

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Re: Met graph

They have apparently worked out a way to do it as it's already been done once. I don't know what reflectivity they got it up to following the wash but I did see the mirror surface recently and it looked pretty good.

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Trollface

“Please help spread the word to stay off the #SSO webcams"

TFW no firewall.

Literally.

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