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Rescued telescopes return to Sugarloaf for first post-fire Star Party

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Reopening Sugarloaf: Schedule

The first Star Party of 2018 is Saturday, Jan. 13, from 6 p.m. to 11. Admission to the observatory will be free, and the usual $8 parking fee will be waived.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park will open by stages, starting Jan. 20.

- The McCormick Addition (with access through Los Alamos Road and Hood Mountain Regional Park) opens Jan. 20.

- Main Park Entrance on Adobe Canyon Road opens Feb 1 for day use (pedestrian trail use only).

- Camping (northern sites only) opens on Feb 15.

Subject to closures due to weather. For up-do-date information visit sugarloafpark.org.

Almost three months to the day after raging fires threatened Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and forced the emergency removal of two valuable telescopes – even as flames approached the Robert Ferguson Observatory – the observatory reopened for a nighttime “star party” on Saturday, Jan. 13.

It marked the first time the public has been allowed to return to Sugarloaf, which suffered extensive damage in the days following the dramatic rescue of the telescopes, carried out by docents and volunteers of the 14-year-old observatory. Other portions of the park will open on a limited basis on Jan. 20 (see sidebar).

“We had visitors and docents at the observatory on Sunday night, Oct. 8, when the fire started,” said George Loyer, one of RFO’s core docents. “They tried to leave at about 10:30 but a tree was down across the road so they came back.”

It wasn’t until well after midnight that they were able to get in touch with park manager John Roney, who managed to open the road with a chain saw – avoiding the power line that had come down with the tree – and everyone at the park was able to escape.

For the next three days docents and astronomers anxiously watched as the fires swept through Sonoma County, hoping it wouldn’t scorch the park.

“All it was going to take was a wind, and it would take the whole park and all of the buildings in it,” said Loyer. “We didn’t want to lose everything.”

“Everything” included not only the 40-inch reflector scope installed early in 2015, which Loyer himself had a hand in building, but a nearly-new 20-inch telescope that had been donated only a few months earlier by the University of San Francisco. It’s of a design called Ritchey-Chretien, the same as used by professional observatories all over the world, and in the Hubble Space Telescope as well.

Despite the telescope’s professional quality, the USF physics department never used it after they had purchased it. “It turns out most of the astronomers at USF are cosmologists and they don’t really look through telescopes that much,” said Loyer.

“It’s about $250,000 worth of equipment,” said Steve Smith, a former docent and now the current president of the Robert Ferguson Observatory Association. “That was our first priority, because we had just gotten it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of equipment, it would have been a real shame to lose that.”

On Thursday, Oct. 12, the docents finally received word that Cal Fire would let them back onto the park grounds to salvage what they could from the observatory. Along with a crew of Team Sugarloaf volunteers, who were anxious to save what they could from the visitors center, residences and campgrounds, they met a fire crew at Highway 12 and Adobe Canyon Road and caravanned up to the park – past the many houses along the road that had been “burned to the ground,” as Loyer described it, over the fire’s first night.

“They gave us about an hour to pull everything out,” said Smith. “We had met earlier and kind of choreographed everything we were going to do so we could be efficient with our time.”

First most of the docents – including Smith, Jim Finn, Kurt Kruger, Jay Pacheco and Toni Bacigalupa – unbolted the 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien and carried it down the ramp to the Team Sugarloaf’s passenger van the “Sugar Shuttle,” which was large enough to take the whole scope.

Reopening Sugarloaf: Schedule

The first Star Party of 2018 is Saturday, Jan. 13, from 6 p.m. to 11. Admission to the observatory will be free, and the usual $8 parking fee will be waived.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park will open by stages, starting Jan. 20.

- The McCormick Addition (with access through Los Alamos Road and Hood Mountain Regional Park) opens Jan. 20.

- Main Park Entrance on Adobe Canyon Road opens Feb 1 for day use (pedestrian trail use only).

- Camping (northern sites only) opens on Feb 15.

Subject to closures due to weather. For up-do-date information visit sugarloafpark.org.

Meanwhile Loyer was unbolting the big 40-inch mirror from the reflecting scope he had helped build. When the Ritchey-Chretien was safe, the others joined him and hefted the 300-pound slab of finished glass out the narrow door, around the catwalk along the building, and down the stairs.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Loyer.

Throughout the air was full of smoke, everyone was wearing N-95 masks, and the fire crew was anxiously checking the wind. The observatory crew went back for the reflector’s smaller mirror itself about $8,000 worth of optics, and whatever else they could easily grab to save – including computers, historical documents, plaques off the wall, and one of Robert Ferguson’s own hand-built telescopes.

Finally the fire crew urgently spoke up:

“’Hurry up, you can’t screw around, you gotta get out of here,’” they told Loyer.

“We ended up not being able to get everything we were after, but … we didn’t want anybody to get hurt out of this.”

They took the telescopes and equipment to a house and garage in Sebastopol. “We felt that was going to be safe, for a few days at least,” said Loyer.

Over the next few days almost 75 percent of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park burned, but the Observatory was spared – though the flames came close. It wasn’t until Jan. 6 – 12 weeks after they were removed – that the telescopes were returned to their rightful place.

Finally, last Saturday, the amateur astronomers and docents returned to RFO for the first Star Party of the year – held, as usual, close to the “new moon” for maximum viewing of the night sky. And the observatory returned to its primary function as a linchpin of public astronomy – a place to, as Loyer put it, “bring the night sky to everybody in the community.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.