Universal picks up the pieces

Water pressure to blame for excess damage

The blaze that destroyed part of the Universal Studios backlot on Sunday was an accident, caused by sparks from a blowtorch used to repair part of the New York Street set, city fire officials said Monday after an investigation.

But as Universal sifts through the ashes, the question now is how much of the damage from the blaze could have been prevented.

Universal has a lot of experience dealing with the impact of a fire on its backlot. The biggest lot in Hollywood has been hit by seven major fires since 1937. Before Sunday’s blaze, the most recent was in 1997.

After a devastating fire in 1990, U installed additional fire protection systems, such as sprinklers and deluge tanks, in spending more than $25 million to rebuild part of its lot, including New York Street and Courthouse Square — the same facades that were hit over the weekend.

The studio also has its own fully functioning fire department, which was on the scene within five minutes after the fire sparked at 4:45 a.m. Sunday. But it later required the help of up to 400 other firefighters from around Los Angeles.

No amount of fire protection is entirely effective, however, if there’s not enough water to contain a fire in its early stages. It took 12 hours to extinguish Sunday’s blaze, and fire officials primarily blame water pressure that was insufficient for more than an hour. The spray from fire hoses was sometimes unable to reach the 100-foot flames, which ultimately led to the destruction of the King Kong attraction, the New York and New England Street sets, elements of Courthouse Square (home of the “Back to the Future” sets) and a large videotape warehouse.

It was initially unclear why the water pressure was so weak. U operates its own water mains, pumps and hydrants, with water supplied by the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power. But fire officials offered some answers Monday.

“What caused the problem was that we were taxing the system that had been damaged,” said Los Angeles County fire inspector Ron Haralson, adding that collapsing buildings caused a break in the system. “We had a deluged system that burst.”

Blowtorches used by two studio staffers to heat asphalt shingles being attached to a facade early Sunday morning ignited the blaze. The U employees noticed the fire after they’d gone on a break, and they then took steps to extinguish it, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said after an investigation.

“They completed their work at approximately 3 a.m.,” Freeman said. “They followed company protocol and policy to stand watch for one hour. Seeing no indication of fire, they took a break.”

The workers, along with a security guard, noticed the fire 45 minutes later and notified the fire department.

Studio brass are now “taking the appropriate time to assess damages, which could take several days,” a studio spokesman said. There are plans to rebuild the damaged facades and King Kong attraction.

A day after the fire, U worked to get back to business as usual on Monday.

The studio was open, production resumed, and CityWalk was back in business. The studio’s theme park, including the popular tram tour that winds its way through the backlot, opened as usual at 10 a.m. The tour was diverted around the fire-damaged portions of the lot, but visitors were able to see the damage up close. There were reports of tourists applauding firefighters as they passed smoldering wreckage on Monday.

“It’s pretty unavoidable at this point,” a theme park spokeswoman said regarding the possibility of trying to circumvent the damaged areas.

Fire officials have long been concerned over the sufficiency of safety measures on studio backlots given that their facade-like structures are highly flammable — built with telephone poles, wood, plastic and other combustible materials that often render sprinkler systems ineffectual — and, indeed, Sunday’s blaze spread quickly.

Deluge tanks are designed to dump water on facades, but fire protection codes for facades aren’t as strict as they are for complete buildings.

Despite its previous precautions, U already knew it had an aging backlot that required upgrades.

The studio unveiled plans in 2006 to overhaul the company’s production facilities as part of a Universal Vision Plan that would relocate and reinvent outdoor sets and add new post-production and support facilities, two soundstages, producer bungalows, a theater and other structures. Final approval from the city is expected to take several years.

Despite the millions lost in the fire, the destruction could have been worse.

Other than the facades and the destroyed King Kong attraction, no rides or attractions at the theme park were affected, nor were movie theaters, restaurants, clubs and shops at CityWalk, a studio spokesman said.

Meanwhile, some filmmakers may shift their production to other locations. On Monday, Warner Bros., which also has a large New York street on its lot, said it had received an increased number of inquiries from producers about the location.

“While we always give Warner Bros.’ productions priority, we are working with Universal Studios and doing our best to accommodate productions that were previously scheduled to be on the Universal backlot,” a spokesman said.

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