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Dixie Fire Threatens SETI Antenna Array Used to Search For Extraterrestrial Life

MOUNTAIN VIEW (CBS SF) -- A set of radio telescope antennas used by the SETI Institute to scan the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial life is being endangered by the massive Dixie Fire, according to officials.

In a press release issued by the SETI Institute on Friday, officials said the Allen Telescope Array -- an ensemble of 42 antennas used in the non-profit organization's search for extraterrestrial intelligence located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory -- was being threatened by the Dixie Fire. Officials said the scientists and engineers usually on-site were evacuated as a precautionary measure in response to an order from the Shasta County Sheriff's Office.

As of Friday, the Dixie Fire was burning approximately 12 miles south of the array of radio telescope antennas. The fire currently ranks as the second-largest fire in California history, just shy of last year's August Complex fire. The Dixie Fire is 959,253 acres and is currently 62% contained according to the latest Cal Fire update. The fire has been burning for 58 days..

"It is an unfortunate fact that environments that are suitable for radio telescopes -- including the Allen Telescope Array -- are also frequently places where wildfires are commonplace," the statement said. "Since microwaves, the type of radio signals sought by the Array, are not hampered by Earth's atmosphere, there's no reason to place such instruments on mountain tops, as is done for optical telescopes."

Cal Fire is making a priority of preventing further fire spread into the Hwy 395 area and the surrounding communities of Hat Creek and Old Station near Hwy 44 in the northwest quadrant of the fire that saw explosive growth overnight on Thursday.

Officials noted that the signals sought by the Allen Array are presumed to be extremely faint, making the radio quiet found in the rural area a necessity. The Hat Creek Radio Observatory was established in 1959 and is now run by the SETI Institute.

According to Alex Pollak, the Array's Science and Engineering Operations Manager, the fire's gradual spread north led to the evacuation of the observatory. Anticipating the possibility that the flames could reach the antennas, the observatory staff contacted the U.S. Forest Service's Fire Department to prepare the site against eventual damage.

Two teams from the Forest Service, about a dozen people in total, removed brush from near the antennas. Trees in the area were also pruned of any branches lower than ten feet above the ground.

Officials said that this was not the first time the Allen Telescope Array has been threatened by wildfire. In the summer of 2014, the Eiler fire reached State Highway 89, approximately two miles from the antennas.

The Allen Telescope Array is a unique facility, standing as the only radio telescope constructed with SETI as a principal activity. Its 42 antennas are currently being refurbished with more sensitive receivers and follow-on electronics that will greatly speed the search for signals that would prove the presence of technological societies in other star systems. The upgrade is funded by Franklin Antonio, a co-founder of the California semiconductor company Qualcomm.

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