California wildfires threaten historic Lick Observatory

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Deadly wildfires burning in northern California are endangering the state’s historic 133-year-old Lick Observatory. 

The wildfires were sparked by lightning earlier this week, with California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a state of emergency on Tuesday (Aug. 18). The fires have so far burned over 600,000 acres and killed 5 people, according to the Washington Post. So far, the historic Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara “appeared to have escaped serious damage,” according to a statement from the University of California Observatories, which oversees the facility..

Firefighting units have been stationed at the observatory, using the on-site buildings as a command center and safe area. 

“Thanks to their tremendous efforts, the telescope domes did not burn,” UC Observatories Director Claire Max said in the same statement. However, the site faces ongoing dangers related to the fires and, as Max emphasized in the statement, the dangers faced by the observatory aren’t over yet. 

The Lick Observatory was built between 1876 and 1887 and is operated by the University of California Observatories (UCO). It was the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory and was named after James Lick, an American real estate investor who funded the facility. Today, the observatory has 27 full-time residents who live in 18 houses and apartments on-site, Lick Observatory spokesperson Maryanne Campbell told in an email.

Currently, the observatory’s “telescope domes and supporting buildings appear to be intact. Telescopes and instruments will need a thorough assessment when danger is clear, to assess potential issues caused by the fire and smoke,” Campbell said.


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