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Fire safety at studios in the spotlight

Times Staff Writer

With highly flammable heavy timber and plastics, close quarters, constant construction and use of open flames and pyrotechnics, movie studios have long been considered especially vulnerable for the types of fires that swept across the Universal Studios lot.

Back in 1952, when an eight-acre chunk of the Warner Bros. back lot erupted in flames, Burt Lancaster, Ray Bolger and other actors were pressed into service to help firefighters battle the blaze.

Fire protection has come a long way since then, but fire officials said movie studios and production facilities remained a major concern.

Sunday’s Universal Studios Hollywood fire is already prompting a new review of safety measures across the film industry.

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“I can assure you that every single major studio is taking a look at their facilities right now,” said Burbank Fire Capt. Ron Bell, whose department handles the Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co. lots, among others.

Bell, a veteran of studio fires, said the Universal blaze was the biggest he’d seen over a 32-year career. “This is an eye-opener.”

Los Angeles County officials said they were planning to produce a report that will look at the Universal blaze as well as lessons that can be applied by other studios and production facilities in the area. They also plan to examine whether building code rules need to be strengthened to better prevent studio fires.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that a big concern was a lack of water pressure encountered when firefighters initially responded to the Universal fire and he wanted to make sure other studios don’t face the same problem. But other fire safety issues at all area production facilities, including storage of combustible materials, also merited a closer look, he said.

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At Universal, storage of contents in a video vault on the back lot created an added danger for firefighters and might have played a role in keeping the fire burning long after it had been put out in other areas, Yaroslavsky said.

“Videos were packed like sardines,” he said. The vault “was so densely packed that it made it impossible for the firefighters to fight.”

Universal has seen half a dozen major fires in its history, two of which -- including Sunday’s blaze -- burned New York City set backdrops.

Los Angeles Fire Inspector William Parker said he had seen marked improvement in fire prevention systems in the 13 years that he has been working with the studios, but the risks remain high.

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“It’s a constant battle,” Parker said, noting that during spot inspections he often found materials stacked up in places they shouldn’t be -- blocking the inside perimeters of sound stages -- and production trucks and cars blocking access to fire lanes.

In just the last year, city fire officials ordered one major studio to clean up a basement under a sound stage that was piled to the ceiling with boxes and other combustible materials, Parker said.

But overall, local studios are taking fire safety much more seriously now than they did just a few years ago, he said. Not too long ago, sections of many studios resembled junk piles out of “Sanford and Son,” he added.

“At times that’s how some of the places looked. Junk, trash, garbage, lumber, anything,” he said. “They are doing a better job than they used to. There’s still room for improvement and it takes commitment on everybody’s part.”

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Officials said they have been aided by tougher state fire laws that spell out minimum basic fire prevention requirements for studios and production facilities. Last year, those rules were expanded to cover not just studios but any production location within the state.

Parker and others noted that some studios were far exceeding the state fire standards. After a fire swept through Paramount Studios in 1983, causing $3 million in damage, officials started using more steel in construction of their sets, he said.

On the Universal back lot, studio officials said they had installed underground fire lines and replaced all the sprinkler systems in their existing sound stages after a fire in 1990.

But Sunday’s blaze was sparked by workers using a blow torch on the roof, apparently limiting the effectiveness of sprinklers below, Los Angeles County fire officials have said. The workers stayed for an hour to watch for signs of fire before taking a break. Within 15 minutes of their leaving, however, flames were spreading through the New York street scape.

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In Culver City, home to the sprawling Sony Pictures Studios, fire safety officials are assigned to oversee most jobs involving welding or “hot work” and employ thermal imaging equipment and temperature probes to prevent a long-smoldering fire.

“We are very aggressive about it,” Sony spokesman Jim Kennedy said.

Culver City Fire Inspector Mike McCormick said the department is also aggressive about inspections and keeping in touch with managers of studio facilities. He visits each of the half-dozen studios at least once a day, including weekends and nights.

“We are a small city and we depend on the studios, where if something were to happen, there would be a much bigger impact,” McCormick said.

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There have been some spectacular fires at area movie studios over the years.

Bell said Burbank has seen at least seven in nearly 60 years. One of the biggest was the 1952 Warner Bros. blaze that destroyed a soundstage, train shed and other property.

In 1974, a huge fire at Burbank Studios destroyed eight acres of structures, including three soundstages and four movie sets. Antique cars and sets for Boston and New York also were lost.

The Universal lot has seen several big fires, too.

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In 1967, street scenes used in TV and movie productions burned during a fire on Universal’s back lot. In 1987, flames erupted on the “Spartacus” set, destroying the three-story structure and three adjacent buildings.

Three years later, a fire ravaged the back lot, forcing authorities to evacuate restaurants and theaters on the grounds. They temporarily closed entrances where Republican Party members were trying to get to the Universal City Hilton for election night celebrations.

The 1990 blaze destroyed the sets known as New York Street and an adjacent alley scene; Brownstone Street; Courthouse Square, where “Back to the Future” was filmed; the Dick Tracy Building, where the movie by the same name was made; and the set where “Ben Hur” was filmed.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com


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