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Archival Story: The Challenge of Fighting an Observatory Fire

Author: Randall D Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-08-12
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Thie article was originally published in American Fire Journal [now defunct] Jan. 2002 issue. Archived here by the author/editor. Photos by Laurie Hatch/Lick Observatory (not all images were published in AFJ). Click on images to open in larger size.

The incident itself may not have been a spectacular one, in the end, but it was one of the most significant responses in recent Santa Clara County history, and one that had the potential of escalating into a major structural/wildland response in a remote location far above and far distant from responding resources.

For more than one hundred years, Lick Observatory has stood overlooking California’s Santa Clara Valley. Perched atop the 4,200-foot summit of Mount Hamilton, the observatory was built during the 1880s to house what was then the largest telescope in the world.  It is the legacy of James Lick, a wealthy and idealistic businessman who amassed a fortune in the 1800s and decided to build the observatory as a memorial to himself.  Although he died a dozen years before the observatory was completed in 1888, what has become Lick’s tombstone (he is, in fact, buried at the base of the 36” scope) remains one of the leading observatories in the world.  Part of the University of California Observatories, Lick Observatory is frequented by students and researchers from around the world.

What was originally a pair of telescopes joined by an office building, the observatory atop Mt. Hamilton today occupies 4500 acres and consists of nine telescopes housed in seven structures.  In addition there are more than a dozen residences and dormitories, a schoolhouse, and various facilities.  23 miles east of downtown San Jose, the Observatory falls within the jurisdiction of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF [now CAL FIRE]), but their closest station is seven miles down the mountain.

Providing immediate fire services is an industrial fire brigade consisting of a handful of paid safety personnel and about a dozen volunteers from the workplace.  For the last six years, Mt. Hamilton Project Manager and Fire Chief Steve Crowe, a former hotshot with the USFS, has overseen the loosely knit department and has endeavored to improve the brigade’s training standards.

The brigade maintains two old fire rigs – Engine 52, a 1953 Ford. and Squad 52, a 1964 GMC, which pump out of a huge water tank (up to 300,000 gallons or more) on the mountaintop.  While none of the observatory buildings are sprinklered, the facility is protected by a pull-station fire alarm.


Smoke Showing

In its 111-year history, the Observatory has never had a serious fire in any of its main buildings.  It would not take much imagination to consider the potential devastation a major fire would do to the aged, remote buildings, or what challenges it would pose to responders.  

It came close on the morning of June 22, 1999, when electrician John Zaknich, who is also a member of the Mt. Hamilton fire brigade, had come in early at 0730hrs to do some work in the main building, which houses the historical 36” refractor telescope and a 40” nickel telescope.  As soon as he entered the main corridor, Zaknich smelled smoke.  Unable to locate the fire, he went to the nearest pull station and pulled it. As luck would have it, the facility’s fire alarm system, which had been scheduled for repairs due to sporadic problems, failed to operate.

Zaknich proceeded to his office and contacted Physical Plant Mechanic David Lingo, who also serves as the acting Co-Chief on the Mount Hamilton Fire Company. They immediately drove up to the Main Building to assist in locating the source of the smoke. By the time of their arrival it was more than apparent that the fire had spread and become more serious than anticipated.  Lingo recognized the severity of the situation and immediately headed down to the Firehouse to get Engine 52.  As he did so, he met Steve Crowe, who was arriving at work, and called out that the main building was on fire.  While Lingo mobilized Engine 52, Crowe deployed Squad 52 and both headed up the driveway towards the familiar white dome of the observatory, now shadowed by black smoke.


Initial Assessment and Attack

Fire company volunteers Donald and Chris Wright arrived to assist, while Maintenance Supervisor Sam Shankle had gone with Zaknich to pinpoint the location of the actual fire. By the volume of smoke that was being generated at this time they wanted to wait for the rest of the crew before doing an initial assessment.  Lingo arrived on scene with acting Captain Gary Cook, who connected  Engine 52 to the hydrant, and laying out a line while Crowe headed up the hill in Squad 52.

“I could see smoke billowing out, and it looked well involved,” said Crowe.  “I knew the history of the building – it was a wood structure with a large seismic diaphragm, and by the amount of smoke I saw I thought it had already hit that diaphragm.”  The seismic diaphragm consists of plywood sheeting that creates a drop ceiling; above it is a 9-foot tall annular attic space adjacent to the observatory dome.  The attic was constructed of old, dry, true dimensional rough sawn lumber, and Crowe was aware that if it became involved, there was a great potential for a major conflagration that would be very difficult to suppress.

Crowe radioed the Morgan Hill Command Center: “Roll everything you can get!”

“What equipment do you want?” replied the CDF dispatcher.

“Just send me everything you have!” Crowe replied back.

“I didn’t know the full situation,” Crowe explained.  “I wanted a helicopter because if the fire hit the diaphragm they could have kept the fire from spotting.  We’re on a ridge top and it would have blown over and hit the brush and we would have had a wildfire as well.”

Cook donned his SCBA and set up a charged line at the main entrance, while Crowe positioned Squad 52, directed the placement of additional hoses, instructed Cook to stay with the engine to insure us adequate water supply and maintain radio communications.  Lingo was going throughout the building opening windows and doors to release and ventilate the trapped smoke. 

Crowe told everyone to stay out of the building, and with Sam Shankle he made a cautious entry to conduct a primary assessment on the fire. “Since I knew the diaphragm was threatened, I wanted to at least identify the location of the fire,” said Crowe.  “I went in with a hose and found fire in the janitorial closet,” which Lingo was attacking with a fire extinguisher.   “I yelled for him to get out of and I moved into the Custodial Closet shielding myself with the nozzle set at a fog pattern, then slowly adjusted the nozzle from a fog to a stream, enveloping the flames and snapping it down to the corner and out in the janitor’s closet.”  Crowe knocked down the fire in the closet, but saw that flames had spread into the gift shop area.  “I exited the building and called for an assault from the outside,” said Crowe.   “With our level of training and equipment, I knew we weren’t able to conduct an interior assault, so our main goal was to set the table for CDF who would be able to make the interior attack when they arrived.”


Travel Time

Mt. Hamilton Road follows the grade originally laid out over a century ago, replete with numerous sharp curves and which in summertime is frequently threatened by wildfires. 

The nearest CDF Station, Smith Creek, has a 20—minute drive up Mt. Hamilton Road to the summit. The second closest CDF engine comes from Sweet Water, 30 minutes away down the eastern slope the mountain.  The next closest fire resources would be from the city of San Jose – a 45 minute-plus response up windy Mt. Hamilton Road.

Captain Pete Gonzalez, responding up on CDF Engine 1662 from Smith Creek, was familiar with the facility on the summit from preplanning that had been done within the previous year.  He knew the potential a major fire could have.  “My first thoughts were that it was a big complex up there, and we may have access problems.  I was wondering about the water supply, which fluctuates, and what kind other resources were going to get there in a timely manner.  I knew it was imperative to start San Jose as soon as possible.” Part way up the mountain, Gonzales spied smoke coming out of the building.

While San Jose and CDF have an agreement for joint response for wildfires on the lower portion of Mt. Hamilton Road, the observatory itself is far beyond their normal response area.  SJFD Assistant Chief Bill Garringer was on his way to work and monitored the dispatch on the CDF channel while his FD radio was on scan.  When he heard Crowe asking CDF to “roll everything you’ve got” Garringer made a quick phone call to his own dispatch center and instructed them to dispatch units immediately toward the observatory.  “The observatory is a national treasure and would be a devastating loss,” Garringer said.  “I decided to treat this incident as a unique event and requested we get a full first alarm on the road even before we got a formal request from CDF.”

CDF Battalion Chief 1612, Bill Maison, responded from the Spring Valley station in Milpitas and heard Crowe’s call for assistance.  “I heard his report of flames coming out the north end of the building and his request to ‘roll everything you can!’” Maison said.  “That is a significant request for resources for them, and that’s when I got on the air and requested a mutual aid dispatch from the City of San Jose.  But I didn’t expect to get a whole first alarm assignment!”

Along with three engines (two of which were 2-piece companies that included Type 4 wildland patrols), one truck company, one USAR company, and Battalion 2, Chief Gerry Kohlmann.  San Jose supplemented the response with two water tenders, in case the water supply on the mountain top proved to be insufficient. 

Responders were acutely aware of the historical significance of the building and preplanned their tactics accordingly.  “The unique thing about this fire is our response time,” said Chief Kohlmann.  “Unless we’re going on a strike team, rarely does the City of San Jose have a 50-minute response time!”

“Knowing the size of the building,” said Maison, “I was not 100% convinced that this was going to be enough resources to take care of the issue, so I also requested a wildland dispatch which gave us six more CDF engines, plus a helicopter and two air tankers.”  Two dozers also came with the complement, which were staged at San Jose’s Station 2 and eventually released.  “With the San Jose first alarm assignment and our wildland assignment I was starting to feel comfortable that if we did have a fire there, we would have the resources to help contain it to one wing of the building.”

“My concern was that, with the old wood-frame construction and full-dimension lumber, that there was hidden fire in there,” Kohlmann said.  “As soon as we arrived we began helping check for extension.”

Meanwhile, Crowe, using an axe from his engine, broke out the windows at the front of the building and instructed firefighters Don Wright and Zaknich to direct their hose stream in through the window and at the ceiling. “Shankle and I directed our hose at the source and hit the walls. We just flooded the gift shop area with as much water as we could put in there,” said Crowe.  Lingo had gone up to the roof to open some windows and doors to ventilate the trapped smoke, as the building had become completely inundated with smoke and steam.  “Resident Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Dolphin had stepped in as our line of communications so Gary could focus on getting the water to the nozzles and sorting out entangled hoses,” Crowe said.


Fire Attack

By the time CDF engine 1662 arrived some 22 minutes after dispatch, Crowe and his firefighters were very glad to see them.  “CDF couldn’t have arrived soon enough!” said Crowe.   “It looked like we were making progress on the fire but I couldn’t confirm that because I couldn’t let any of my crew members go inside the building.  I was just praying that it hadn’t gotten up into that annular space.”


Pete Gonzalez and his crew donned SCBA and, directed by Crowe, took a line off of their engine into the building.  They confirmed the fire was extinguished in the closet and the gift shop storeroom, but concerns were high that it might have extended to either the attic or the basement in the process.  “When we first got on scene, the Mt. Hamilton engine was pumping water from the outside to the inside of the building,” said Pete Gonzalez.  “I had seen smoke coming out of the building on our way up the mountain, but there wasn’t much by the time we arrived.  My first thought was to get a line from my engine started up toward the attic, to make sure it hadn’t spread to there.”  Led by one of the brigade members, Gonzalez went in through the north end of the building to the main floor where Crowe had spotted the fire in the storeroom.  “There was no fire visible on the main floor, but there was heavy charring in two rooms,” Gonzalez said.  “We checked the basement but couldn’t find any fire there either, so we went back out.”  Gonzalez radioed to Morgan Hill that the fire seemed to be contained to those two rooms.

As radio reports of an apparent knock down reached the San Jose units, Kohlmann cancelled his third engine, the US&R company, and the second Water Tender.  The remaining Water Tender was staged at CDF’s Smith Creek Station and eventually released.  CDF’s aircraft were also cancelled.

Chief Maison arrived just ahead of the first San Jose contingent.  “By the time I arrived we had two engine companies on scene plus the two brigade companies,” he said.  “The brigade had the fire pretty well knocked down, and it was a matter of making sure there were no extensions.  Because of the age of that building, nobody was 100% sure of where the original walls were and how to crawl around underneath through the enclosed basements, which were basically just crawlways.  Plus we had to get up into the attic.”  Maison set up a unified command with San Jose’s BC Kohlmann.  “I relied heavily on Chief Kohlmann’s experience with that size of a building.  It’s more like a downtown strip mall than what rural departments are used to.”


While CDF firefighters were checking out the basement, the first San Jose companies arrived and were directed to check for extension into the attic.  “I thought we should cut into the seismic diaphragm so we could get a good look and make sure nothing’s still smoldering there,” said Crowe.

“The ceiling is made out of plywood with 2x6 joists on top,” said Maison.  “If the fire had gotten up into the attic we would have had one huge horizontal chimney through which the fire would have been cooking for a long period of time.”  The attic as about 30’ wide by 9’ tall, and it ran the whole length of the building, about 200-feet.  “It was a clear attic, and if the fire had gotten up there, there was potentially no way of stopping it with the resources we had,” said Maison. 

“We could smell smoke in the attic,” said San Jose Engine 2 Captain, Mark Mooney.  “Because of the nature of the structure we felt it was worth cutting an inspection hole in the attic floor.  It turned out that it was only trapped smoke.”

“Every concealed space that we thought was communicating to that area was cut apart, just like we do on a normal structure fire,” Kohlmann said.  “We wanted to surgically poke around to make sure that when we left there was no chance of a restart.”

With the confirmation of no extension, the second San Jose engine was cancelled and the incident was handled by the two brigade engines, the two CDF engines, and San Jose’s engine and truck.  

Mooney’s crew on Engine 2 was also asked to perform a secondary check of the basement.  “It turns out there is a maze of tunneling underneath the structure that supports the main telescope,” Mooney said.  “The tunneling was designed for a raceway to hold electrical wires and some old, old plumbing.  We accessed the underside of the floor where the fire was still smoldering.  Because that is a confined space area, the brigade did not have the breathing apparatus on site prior to San Jose’s arrival in order to send anyone down.  So I established two people out and I went in with two other people, and we found some smoldering but no active fire.”



With the fire extinguished, the biggest job that needed to be done –almost as important as putting out the fire– was removing the water from the building’s expensive marble and hardwood floors, and protecting the valuable property stored in the hallways and offices from water damage.  CDF firefighters used squeegees to remove the water off the floors, which were then dried with fans from San Jose’s Truck 2.  “We were concerned that the water would cause warping to the hardwood flooring or get underneath the marble flooring and do some damage,” Gonzalez said.

Truck 2 was assigned initial overhaul of the fire area.  Since the fire had gotten into a wall, they were instructed to tear into it and remove debris from inside.  After this was completed, they assisted in removing the display cases from the gift shop area along with personnel from Engine 2.  “The building had a beautiful hardwood floor, and there was a lot of water on it,” Mooney said.  “We wanted to get fans on the floor and get that dry as quickly as possible, so we moved all the display cases out of the way.”

San Jose units were released from the scene by 1:30 PM after spending some five hours on scene.  CDF units left the scene at 2:00 PM, turning the scene back over to the fire brigade and Observatory personnel.

San Jose Fire Investigator Jim Acker responded and assisted CDF Investigator Kathy Bianchi in checking for the cause of the fire, which they determined to have started from a short circuit in an electrical socket in the gift shop storeroom.



For the most part, communications between the agencies worked well.  Mt. Hamilton Fire uses the same local frequency as the CDF companies, which has a repeater right on the mountain.  Through a frequency sharing agreement, San Jose has the local CDF command and tactical frequencies in all of their rigs, so they were able to monitor Crowe’s reports as they responded up and also communicate with BC Maison.

 “We responded on our own command channel while monitoring CDF’s tactical frequency,” said Kohlmann.  “We were asked initially to switch to their tac channel, but I asked our units to stay on our own command because I knew it was a simplex channel and I would be able to talk to my units.  Quite often up there, if I go to a duplex frequency I lose them.  I also didn’t want to step on the on-scene radio traffic, so we didn’t switch to their tac until we arrived on scene.” 



The challenge of fighting a working fire in such a large and historical building in such a remote area was foremost in the minds of nearly all responders.

“Here was a very, very unique situation on the top of a mountain where you only have so much room to get around the structure,” said Mooney.  “The attic was built with heavy, hand-carved timber from the 1880s, very thick and extremely dry. If the attic had caught fire, it would have been near impossible to have stopped the fire with the equipment we would have been able to assemble.  Any fire up in there would have been just devastating.”

“The fire was contained at a very critical time,” said Remington Stone, Director of Operations for the Observatory, who acted as PIO during the incident.  “I think we were really lucky that we had people who knew how to deal with that and not get hurt, and turn it around when time was of the essence.”

“After the first 20 minutes on that building, fire was already starting to roll out of that storage room,” said Maison.  “Another 20 minutes we could have had that whole wing involved.  It could have gotten ugly real fast.”

 “I think we were very lucky on this thing,” said Pete Gonzalez.  “There was heavy, heavy charring underneath the floor; the fire burned a 2-foot hole across part of the floor.  The fire had just started to break through the ceiling and if it hadn’t been found when it was I’m sure we would have had a really big problem.”

“We had some structural engineers come in after the fire and they said, ‘you were only minutes away of involving the whole building!’” Crowe said.



The incident was a good example of crews from different – and different types – of departments working together effectively and successfully.   “San Jose and CDF did the majority of the labor with the mopping up and all,” said Crowe.  “I can’t tell you how great it was to get that kind of help.  We were pretty much exhausted.”

“The fire brigade volunteers did a good stop,” said Gonzalez.  “Then we did an assessment.  When San Jose got there they went right to work too.  Nobody was saying, ‘no we’re not going to do that,’ – they assisted with everything, and everybody just worked together.”

“The minute we arrived, we were assigned a fire brigade person to go with us and show us where the access to the tunneling area was,” said Mooney.  “They gave us the appropriate information about what we would find down there, and they actually volunteered themselves to be workers underneath our command and gave us the opportunity to take the direction on the overhaul."

“The volunteers at the observatory did a great job of keeping this potentially disastrous fire from spreading by the actions they took on their initial attack,” said SJFD Assistant Chief Garringer. “If the observatory had been destroyed it would have been a terrible loss not only to our valley and community, but to the entire country, and the only right thing to do was to at least try to lend a helping hand.  CDF has come to our aid numerous times, especially with their aircraft.  We are all in this business together and this was an easy decision to make to send help.”

“The positive thing in working in a multi-agency operation was that the agencies recognized their strengths and their weaknesses,” said Mooney.  “San Jose’s strength, being a large municipal department, is in structural firefighting.  CDF’s strength, as a primarily rural agency, is in anticipating incident potential and having the ability to call in large volumes of resources.  The Mt. Hamilton brigade knew their building much better than we did and they could direct us in what to do.”

“The big elements that we brought to this fire were building construction knowledge, experience with overhauling and chasing out hidden fire, and personnel to do it,” said Kohlmann.  “We had Truck 2 with our big gnarly carbide-tipped chainsaws, and we had a big mobile generator on the Light Unit so if the utilities were shut down we had power for the watervac.”


Lessons Learned

Post-Incident analysis revealed not only the potential for a truly devastating incident, but reinforced a number of lessons worth sharing:

Training & Fire Prevention: Having an adequate preventative program, in the way of education and inspections paramount, but it must be partnered with effective and continual training.  Especially in a remote, industrial setting such as a mountaintop observatory, having trained personnel on hand to immediately mitigate emergency situations can be vital to avoiding disaster.

“Having trained personnel is a real key, as is interaction with surrounding departments,” said Remington Stone.  “One of the things that came out of this that I hope will help us in the future is getting to know one another.  We’ve gotten to talk to the firefighters down in San Jose, for example, and they have been creative in suggesting ways they could respond more quickly should this happen again.  Getting to know people and talking about it and having a plan in place for quick response will help us considerably in the future.”

“We could have made a better assault on the interior if we’d had the adequate training to use SCBA,” said Crowe.  “It was a scary situation.  I’d rather attack it adequately and I’d like to have the 2-in/2-out to do that.  What we hope to see in the future is to complete our MOU with CDF and get a closer working relationship with them.  We’ve also talked to San Jose about things like having the CDF helicopter pick them up and fly them up here to our helipad within 7-8 minutes.  Then we’ll have experienced firefighters who know the job who can go in and make the initial assault right away.”

Structure Familiarity: Even if the building isn’t in your jurisdiction, if it’s a significant property that you could conceivable be called in to operate in, you ought to be aware of its layout and hazards. “The most important thing jurisdictions can do to prepare for these unusual occupancies is to do familiarization walk-throughs and have organized multi-jurisdictional drills,” said San Jose’s Bill Garringer. “Everyone involved needs to have a good understanding of how long it will take to get help, what type of equipment and staffing is coming to help, and what the capabilities are of that help.”

Tactical Pre-Planning: Plan for an adequate initial response, with clear understanding of incident potential.  Send more rather than less.  “We used everything that arrived up there, and we progressively peeled off what we determined we didn’t need,” said Kohlmann.  “It’s the old adage: you respond, you investigate, and then cancel what you don’t need.”

Adequate pre-planning is essential.  “You have to know the ins and outs and the small points of the building, especially the older buildings,” said Maison.  “You have to know where the original walls are, where the original floors are.  The second issue is to start the mutual aid process as early as possible.  And of course joint training with the professional firefighters and the volunteer brigade firefighters is paramount.”

 “Hopefully, this will never ever happen again, but there are other structures up there,” said Mooney.  “Being scientists, the community by nature is probably a little more fire-conscious than the average home owner, so we aren’t going to see a lot of fires.  But because more and more electricity is being used on the mountain than was used in the 1800s, there is more potential for a short circuit and a fire.”

At the time of writing this article, Randall D. Larson was a Senior Dispatcher for the San Jose Fire Department, with 17 years experience in fire service communications.  Chair of the Incident Dispatcher Subcommittee for the California Fire Chiefs Association, Communications Section, Larson is also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine and a frequent contributor to fire service and emergency communications publications.


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