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Oz astronomical observatory survives firestorm

Updated: Buildings damaged, extent unknown

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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 approaches Siding Spring Observatory. Source: RFS

That tiny white dome is the observatory.

The Observatory’s Webcam* (with thanks to @astrokiwi, Michele Bannister) showed a clear enough morning:

A clear morning at Siding Spring - but note the faint red sky.

By afternoon, things are looking worrying:

Smoke blows in to the Siding Spring Observatory

And as the fire draws closer, things look worrying indeed:

The fire is nearly here

However, it eventually clears – apparently without catastrophe:

The sky begins to clear

Note, however, that the case of the Webcam seems to have melted a little during the day - compare the left edge of the first image to the last.

If you like a good scare, here’s a temperature plot – I think from inside the building, but am open to correction – posted to Twitter by Professor Brian Schmidt (@cosmicpinot if you want to follow):

The arrival of the fire-front is indicated in the bottom plot - where the yellow line passes 100°

The professor accompanied the plot with this statement: “Seems the fire has come through - AAT showed temperature > 100C, AAT and 2.3m and SkyMapper are all alive. Let's hope everything survived.”

The professor also stated:

“After the 2003 Stromlo fires, SSO [Siding Spring Observatory – ed] did major work for just such an event. It appears to have paid off - tomorrow will tell just how much.”

(In 2003, a historic telescope at Mount Stromolo was destroyed in bushfires).

As I write this, the fire still threatens homes. My thoughts go with them, and with the volunteers who’ll put themselves between the fire and other peoples’ property. ®

Update: Later reports indicate some property damage at the site, but the extent won't be known until the morning of January 14, Sydney time. This story will be updated when the damage extent is known. Astronomer Brad Tucker, @btucker22 on Twitter, has expressed concerns for at least two of the facility's 12 telescopes at the time of writing. ®

Further Update: Damage assessment today

Unfortunately, initial indications that the observatory escaped damage may have been too optimistic. Reports suggest damage to the facility’s visitor centre and a building called The Lodge.

ANU personnel are travelling from Canberra to Coonabarrabran this morning to carry out damage assessments. The Observatory’s Robert McNaught said in this post:

“I have no news about telescopes, but note that I can login to computers in the Uppsala office and the 2.3m building. The AAT should be unaffected as it is a very secure and well defended building. It is in fact the evacuation area on the mountain.”

Staffer Amanda Bauer has a terrifying time-lapse of the fire from one of the cameras here.

*The Register has temporarily removed the link to the Observatory Webcam in response to this post by Brian Schmidt: “Please help spread the word to stay off the #SSO webcams. The FRS is using them to coordinate their efforts.”

The Australian National University has released a preliminary statement that all instruments appear intact at this stage. Power is being cut to the facility to ensure it's safe for staff to enter buildings. The university expects a more detailed update later today. ®

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