Monday, August 31, 2009

Fire Update: Mt. Wilson Observatory, Broadcast Towers In Grave Danger


Image from the Mt. Wilson Towercam, as captured via Flickr by SpokkerJones.)

Los Angeles TV and radio execs were on edge Sunday night, waiting to see whether an out-of-control fire would hit their transmitters atop Mt. Wilson.

The “Station fire” had already consumed 42,500 acres of the Angeles National Forest, destroyed at least 18 homes and led to the death of two firefighters. Attention then turned to Mt. Wilson, where a historic observatory stands – as well as the transmitting towers for the majority of Los Angeles’ TV stations.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesperson told KCAL-TV that fire retardant had been spread around the transmission equipment and that brush had been cleared around the area – but he expected fire to nonetheless hit the site in the near future.

“There’s nothing we can do to stop that fire from going up Mt. Wilson,” he told the station.

Every major L.A. TV station transmits from Mt. Wilson; other communication signals also rely on transmission facilities there.

Stations advised viewers that they may lose their over-the-air signal, and noted that most cable and satellite customers would still continue to receive the stations (which are fed directly to those services rather than over the air).

Engineers were also juggling their digital channels in order to prepare for the potential loss of transition; KNBC, for example, replaced its normal digital subchannels with feeds of sister Spanish outlets KVEA and KWHY.

Several of Los Angeles’ FM stations also faced the possibility of going off the air should the fires hit their towers.

Among the FM outlets up on Mt. Wilson are KIIS (102.7), KOST (103.5) KBIG (104.3), KRTH (101.1), KCBS (“Jack FM,” 93.1), KTWV (“The Wave,” 94.7); KLOS (95.5), KAMP (“Amp Radio,” 97.1), KSWD (“The Sound,” 100.3), KPWR (“Power 106,” 105.9) and KKGO (105.1).

Some of those stations already have auxiliary towers located elsewhere and could continue on the air – although perhaps at less power.

By late Sunday, the fires hadn’t hit Mt. Wilson as quickly as fire officials had originally thought – but by no means were the Observatory or broadcast facilities out of harm’s way. Other reports, however, were more dour, with expectations continuing to grow that the fire will hit the observatory and transmission towers some time late tonight.



For a primer on the towers of Mt. Wilson and how things look up there, check out Scott Fybush's excellent site on all things broadcast tower site.

And yes, I have pointed out on Twitter how it's quite ironic that the local TV stations have been lax in covering the Station fire up to now -- and yet this fire will likely cripple them in a way that no other fire ever has.

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