November 10, 2007

HPWREN Aids Firefighters on Palomar Mountain

By W. Scott Kardel, Public Affairs Coordinator, Palomar Observatory

For the past four years, astronomers at the California Institute of Technology's Palomar Observatory in Southern California have been using the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) as the data transfer cyberinfrastructure to further our understanding of the universe. During the recent firestorms in southern California HPWREN was used at the observatory for a much more down-to-earth purpose -- providing vital emergency communications when all other resources were cut off.

All astronomical observations shut down at the Palomar Observatory as the Santa Ana Winds hit southern California on October 21st. Early in the morning of October 23rd the Poomacha Fire broke out near the base of Palomar Mountain and rapidly spread up slope threatening homes and the observatory.

The flames came within two miles or so of the facility which houses an interferometer and five telescopes including the 200-inch Hale Telescope, the largest in the world for many decades.

The Palomar Testbed Interferometer and the dome of the 200-inch Hale Telescope are dwarfed by the smoke plume of the Poomacha Fire on Palomar Mountain. Photo by Robert Thicksten.

Fire near Palomar Observatory

The observatory was closed and the on-site staff evacuated in stages. As the flames made their closest approach, a dozen fire trucks, some from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, took up positions on the observatory property. A few key Observatory staff then returned to provide support to the firefighters. Firefighters utilized the entire observatory as a rest area and staging area for attacking the fire.

Poomacha Fire

The Poomacha Fire burns in the Palomar Mountain State Park. Photo by a member of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department.

Shortly after the outbreak of fire, power and phone lines were cut to Palomar Mountain, leaving the observatory potentially cut off from the world. The observatory is fortunately equipped with back-up generators and HPWREN. HPWREN allowed the observatory staff to coordinate with the firefighting efforts and with Caltech in Pasadena. The ability of outside personnel to monitor weather conditions on the observatory site and for observatory staff to communicate to the outside world using Voice-Over-Internet Protocol was invaluable.

The observatory provided water from its own one million-gallon water tank for fire units operating in the nearby community. The floor of the Hale Telescope's large dome served as a bunkhouse for many firefighters, as did the dorm where astronomers normally stay when they are observing.

Palomar Observatory network administrator Dan Zeiber, along with fellow observatory employee Greg Van Idsinga are also members of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department and spent the week fighting the fire along with thousands of other firefighters under the direction of CAL FIRE and the Cleveland National Forest.

Palomar Observatory network administrator Daniel Zeiber is also a Captain on the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department. Here he takes a break from firefighting with his wife Laura, also a member of the PMVFD.

Dan Zieber with wife Laura

Dan McKenna, the Deputy Site Manager, worked with the staff to assess any potential damage to the observatory's sensitive optics and cameras from ash contamination and brought the telescopes back into operation by early November. The observatory's use of HPWREN has returned to its normal, data-intensive operations of hunting for asteroids, exoplanets, distant quasars and more.

The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network program is an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional UC San Diego research program led by principal investigator Hans-Werner Braun at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and co-principal investigator Frank Vernon at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. HPWREN is based on work funded by the National Science Foundation. The HPWREN web site is at https://www.hpwren.ucsd.edu/.

by W. Scott Kardel
Public Affairs Coordinator, Palomar Observatory
California Institute of Technology
Telephone: (760) 742-2111

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