Report: Universal Studios Needs More Fire Protection

By | June 18, 2008

The Universal Studios lot needs more stringent fire protection to prevent another fire like the one that devastated part of the back lot earlier in June, a Los Angeles County Fire Department report concluded.

Firefighters’ difficulties in controlling the June 1, 2008, fire were not hindered by low water pressure, but by the highly combustible materials and close arrangement of building facades and set pieces that caused the fire to burn hot and spread fast, according to the report.

Roofers using a blowtorch accidentally started the massive fire, which destroyed the New York streetscape, which was featured in “Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers,” a King Kong attraction and a building that stored thousands of videos.

Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman likened the lot to a lumber yard, “but with the lumber stacked vertically and they just hang some blinds to make it look nice.”

Firefighters who aimed their hoses at the blaze watched as heavy streams of water turned to steam before reaching the flames, he said.

The first two engines that responded to the scene could not pump water quickly enough to extinguish the raging fire, Deputy Fire Chief Scott Poster, who led the investigative team, said.

The engines also had to temporarily disconnect from hydrants to avoid being scorched by the sheer heat coming from the flames, he said.

When engines started tapping into lakes on the property, some firefighters experienced a temporary loss of water pressure.

The studio had installed deluge fire protection systems on the exterior of the facades after a 1990 fire on the lot, but the sprinklers proved ineffective, the report said. When the facades fell down, the pipes broke and spilled water that could have been used for firefighting.

The report calls for Universal to rebuild to exceed existing fire and building codes.

A call and e-mail message sent to a studio spokesman after business hours were not immediately returned.

Freeman suggested the facades could be rebuilt with steel or concrete instead of wood.

Fire officials will work with Universal staff, who have been “cooperative and proactive,” to rebuild the sets with fire resistant materials and provide adequate space between structures, Freeman said.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the studio, noted that facades surrounded the building that houses the King Kong attraction, and when they were ignited, “the building was a goner.” He said the fire showed the facades should not be regarded as just temporary structures, but subject to fire regulations.

“Clearly these sets needed to be looked at more as buildings than as temporary sets,” he said.

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