Los Angeles TV and radio station execs were making contingency plans Monday as a massive wildfire threatened to knock their broadcast signals off the air.
With the so-called Station fire consuming more than 100,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, flames were moving closer to the top of Mt. Wilson and adjacent peaks — from which all of L.A.’s TV outlets and many FM stations transmit.
As of late Monday afternoon, the fire hadn’t yet hit Mt. Wilson — which is also home to other communication transmitters, as well as the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory — but Los Angeles County Fire Dept. officials said they believed the mountaintop would not be spared.
Firefighters spent much of Sunday afternoon covering the area with fire retardant and clearing brush from structures. But by Monday morning, the firefighters had all evacuated the mountain to avoid being trapped.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop that fire from going up Mt. Wilson,” one fire department spokesman told KCAL-TV.
At NBC-owned KNBC, staffers immediately began shipping in equipment from various parts of the country in order to build temporary transmitter facilities for the station and its Spanish-lingo sisters, KVEA and KWHY.
A station spokesman said contingency plans hadn’t been developed before the fire but were put in place once it became apparent that Mt. Wilson was in danger.
“This is a fluid situation, and the details are still being worked out,” she said.
Should the Mt. Wilson transmitting towers be destroyed by fire, local stations wouldn’t take as big a hit as they might have a few decades ago: Most cable, satellite and telco systems won’t be affected, as stations now deliver their feeds to providers via fiber-optic lines.
In Los Angeles, 86% of the market’s viewers receive station signals via one of those services. Hispanic households would be hit harder, as the number drops to 76% in that demographic.
Stations such as Tribune’s KTLA have been advising viewers that they may lose their signal — and to watch its feed via the Internet if the station is knocked off the air.
Across town at CBS’ KCBS/KCAL duopoly, the stations were also streaming their newscasts on their website as execs continued to monitor the situation.
TV engineers across town were also juggling their digital channels in order to prepare for the potential loss of transmission; KNBC, for example, replaced its digital subchannels with feeds of sister Spanish outlets KVEA and KWHY.
While cable and satellite will keep TV viewership losses to a minimum, several L.A. FM stations won’t be as lucky.
Among the FM outlets up on Mt. Wilson are KIIS (102.7), KOST (103.5), KBIG (104.3), KRTH (101.1), KCBS (“Jack FM,” 93.1), KTWV (“The Wave,” 94.7), KLOS (95.5), KAMP (“Amp Radio,” 97.1), KPWR (“Power 106,” 105.9), KKGO (105.9) and pubcasters KPCC (89.3), KPFK (90.7) and KUSC (91.5).
Some of those stations already have auxiliary towers located elsewhere and could quickly get back on the air, but most likely at lesser power and with a smaller coverage area.
KUSC had already switched to its auxiliary antenna in the Hollywood Hills on Monday and told listeners that its signal would reach a smaller footprint as a result.
Many of the transmitting structures on Mt. Wilson were built with cinderblocks and other hardy materials, leaving engineers with some hope that fires won’t cause mass destruction.
Authorities now say the fire may not be fully contained until mid-September. Two firefighters were killed Sunday in a vehicle accident related to the fire, while more than 20 homes have been destroyed. About 12,000 homes are threatened.
Meanwhile, local impact on filmmaking activity didn’t appear to be significant. Philipp Solokowski of the FilmL.A. agency, which facilitates permitting, told Daily Variety on Monday that two productions set for Altadena had to find different locations. He also said two permit requests last week for filming in the Angeles National Forest — before the fire became massive — were denied “out of an abundance of caution.”
Jessica Freude of the Santa Clarita Film Office said the fires had not stopped filming in that area. “We have been very fortunate, knock on wood,” she added.
(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)