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Towering Inferno Hits Universal

Spurs Fire Prevention Reviews at Studios

June 8, 2008 07:18 | By

In the wake of the ferocious June 1 fire at Universal Studios, several probes have been set in motion. The Los Angeles County Fire Department plans to issue a report in mid-June focusing on the low water pressure firefighters initially encountered on the backlot. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has asked for an interdepartmental study of whether overall studio building codes need to be bolstered to make sets more flame resistant.

The dramatic pre-dawn blaze sent flames shooting 100 feet into the air and took 17 hours to finally quench. At its peak, over 400 firemen were at the scene of the three-alarm fire, which drew worldwide attention because of the fame of the Universal studio tour and theme park that abuts the backlot.

Destroyed were several frequently filmed facades, most notably the New York City street set and the courthouse square featured in Back to the Future. A densely packed storage vault housing 40,000 videotapes and films went through a virtual meltdown from the intense heat generated by the burning plastic, requiring firemen to bulldoze the structure to gain access.

The popular King Kong attraction also went up in flames, but the rest of the Universal rides and attractions were spared. And none of Universal’s 30 sound stages were damaged. The theme park was closed to the public on Sunday because of the persistence of toxic residues from the fire, but reopened on Monday. However, on Sunday night the MTV Movie Awards went on as scheduled at the nearby Universal Amphitheater.

A preliminary fire department investigation concluded that the blaze was accidentally triggered by a studio work crew using a blowtorch to attach shingles to the roof of one of the structures on the New York street. Following studio safety procedures, the workers waited an hour after the device was turned off before temporarily departing at around 4 a.m.

A security guard discovered the blaze 45 minutes later, just as the workers were returning, and immediately called the fire department which responded within minutes. Alone among the town’s studios, Universal has a Los Angeles County Fire Department station located on its premises because of the threat a fire could pose to the thousands of daily visitors to its theme park. But by the time firemen arrived, the blaze had grown to the size of two city blocks and extra units were called in to assist from as far away as Arcadia.

LA County Fire Department chief Michael Freeman promised a “stem to stern” investigation into problems with inadequate water pressure at Universal that hobbled the firefighters who first arrived at the scene. “The big question right now is trying to compare water available on site, off site and in the system itself with the amount of fire that the first arriving units were confronted with,” said Freeman.

Firemen resorted to tapping into a lake and several ponds on the premises, hooking hoses up to hydrants outside the studio and dropping water from helicopters. Freeman told a press conference that the interdepartmental report would also look at whether sets should be made more flame-resistant.

Meanwhile, the LA County Board, spurred by Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky, whose third district encompasses Universal City, approved a probe into whether the flammable studio sets should perhaps be subject to the same construction and fire regulations governing office and commercial buildings. The studios are unlikely to back such a substantial upgrade. And Yarosklovsky conceded that such a step could be too costly but said it was worth looking into.

Despite the intensity of the blaze, damage could have been greater. “Nothing irreplaceable is lost,” Universal Studios chief executive Ron Meyer told reporters. “We were very lucky.” He said the damage from the fire was a “bad situation, but it could have been a lot worse.” He said duplicates of all the contents existed at other Universal storage sites around the country. “The video library was affected and damaged, but our main vault with motion picture negatives was not,” he added. The only total loss for Universal involved several hundred movie stills that went up in smoke, according to an official.

Universal Music Group, a totally different company, had stored historically and artistically important music recordings in the same vault, but was well along in the process of removing them to other locations when the fire broke out, according to a company official. “There was nothing lost that doesn’t have a copy,” he also averred.

The movie archive stored in the Universal City vault has primarily served as a resource for film festivals and art house theaters. About 800 films were destroyed, according to a Universal spokesperson, fewer than initially estimated. Prints destined for a recent UCLA salute to actor Jimmy Stewart on the centenary of his birth survived and were delivered, she said. But sponsors of some planned festivals have been left scrambling to find other copies of Universal film prints that they had on order.

Universal is still assessing damages from the blaze so the financial loss from the fire has yet to be tallied, according to the official. The studio plans to promptly rebuild the sets for the New York street and the New England square as quickly as possible, along with the King Kong attraction. The only ongoing production that was harmed was The Ghost Whisperer, a CBS series on hiatus until June 15. Two of the eight sets it films on at Universal were damaged. Universal said it would come up with new locations.

Studio backlots have been the scene of numerous fires over the years. Universal alone has had six over its nearly 100 year history. The most recent and one of the most serious was in 1990, when wind-whipped flames also devoured the New York street set along with other backdrops. The cause of that fire was deemed to be arson. Rebuilding costs came to over $25 million. The studio installed a comprehensive new sprinkler system and underground flow piping after the 1990 blaze, but it has yet to be determined how it performed in the June 1 fire.

Most of the studios, including Universal, have issued specific and detailed fire prevention procedures. At Sony, for example, special permits must be obtained for welding and other “hot work” because of the hazardous potential. Precautions include ridding the work area of all combustibles, mounting a fire watching during operations and using a thermal imager to look for hot spots. “We strive to have a very aggressive fire prevention and safety program here,” says Jim Kennedy, Sony senior vice president for corporate communications. Despite such precautions, Sony two years ago experienced a fire on one of its soundstages caused by slowly smoldering wiring hidden within the walls. That blaze, however, was quickly contained.

Though the recommendations from the ongoing reviews are still pending, a thorough outside assessment of the effectiveness of backlot fire prevention measures is overdue and should be welcomed by the studios.