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When the SCU Lightning Complex fires swept through Santa Clara County’s east foothills in August, residents and fans of the Lick Observatory rejoiced in its survival.
Fire crews were successful in protecting the main structures and telescope domes that have sat at the top of Mt. Hamilton since 1888, but the blaze damaged periphery buildings like employee housing and other critical infrastructure.
So, Friends of Lick Observatory (FoLO), a local organization that provides volunteers and funding for community outreach events at the observatory, has designated $75,000 to aid in recovery efforts.
“The total amount of damage is still being assessed, but in the meantime, there are things that really need to be repaired as soon as possible,” said Andrew Fraknoi, chair of FoLO’s Board of Directors.
One of the priorities is fixing the houses of the small community of observatory employees who live on Mount Hamilton.
Nearly all of the windows of the homes cracked from the fire. Most homes sustained minimal damage, but two homes need more extensive repairs, said Claire Max, director of the UC Observatories and astrophysics professor at UC Santa Cruz.
“There are 27 people who live on the mountain, and we need them to be safe and comfortable in their homes, because we are nothing without our employees,” Max said. “The windows are all taped or boarded up now, but our worry is that winter storms could create real problems.”
Winter storms also pose another threat — landslides. The fires eroded and broke up the soil, so intense rainfall could carry dirt, debris, trees, rocks and even buildings down the charred hillside.
So, another priority is replacing wooden retaining walls that burned, cleaning culverts and other erosion-control efforts to keep the hillside intact.
The buildings that burned in the fire — two peripheral structures, an unused residence and a storage structure — would also require demolition and debris removal, Max said.
“The brick walls of the Barnard House are still standing, and the first strong winds blew down the chimney, so taking that down to the ground and removing the material is high on the list,” Max said.
The total cost of repair won’t be known until contractors submit their bids, but Max said it is likely to be in the millions of dollars.
But Max and Fraknoi are encouraging people to also help with reconstruction by offering a free Friends of the Lick Observatory membership to those who donate $50 or more to the UCO Director’s Discretionary Fund.
Fraknoi said that with a membership, individuals can receive early notice of Lick Observatory events, discounts at the gift stores, among other benefits.
“There is less awareness of the need now that the fire is out of the news, and many people only heard that the observatory was saved — they didn’t hear about the damage to some of the buildings and infrastructure,” Fraknoi said.
The observatory remains closed to the public, but astronomers have been able to resume telescope operations, “thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the firefighters,” Max said.