Movie studios reviewing their fire-prevention plans

Ric Francis / Associated Press
Los Angeles County firefighter Darrick Woolever examines debris at the
Universal Studios Hollywood back lot, June 2, 2008.
Sunday’s fire is spurring other movie studios to reexamine their fire-prevention plans.

Sunday's fire at Universal Studios Hollywood is prompting other film studios to re-evaluate their strategies. Some have already been taking preventive measures over the years.

By Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
12:34 PM PDT, June 3, 2008

The fire at Universal Studios Hollywood is serving as a wake-up call for movie production facilities across Southern California, which are reviewing their fire-prevention plans.

With highly flammable heavy timber, close quarters and constant construction, movie studios are considered especially vulnerable for fires. Universal has seen a half-dozen major fires in its history, two of which -- including Sunday's blaze -- burned New York backdrops.

"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 Disney lots, among others.

Bell, a veteran of studio fires, said the Universal blaze was the biggest he'd seen. "This is an eye-opener."

County officials said they are planning to produce a report that will look at the Universal blaze as well as lessons that can be applied by other studios around the Los Angeles area. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he was concerned about a lack of water pressure firefighters encountered when dealing with the Universal fire and wants to make sure other studios don't face the same issues.

William Parker, a Los Angeles Fire Department inspector, said studios in recent years have markedly improved their fire prevention systems - but the risks remain.

In the 13 years he's worked in the department's film unit, studios have added fire lanes, improved training for pyrotechnicians and created special fire-watch rules. He believes the changes have resulted in fewer fires.

He noted that after a fire at Paramount studios 20 years ago, officials started using more steel in construction of sets.

"It's a constant battle," Parker said.

In Culver City, home to the sprawling Sony studios, fire officials said they will be watching the investigation of the Universal blaze but believe they already have stricter requirement than many other jurisdictions. Fire inspector Mike McCormick said he goes to the Sony studio every day.

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

Bell said his city has seen at least seven in the last half-century. Perhaps the biggest occurred in 1952 when fire raced through eight acres of Warner Bros. sets, destroying a soundstage, train shed and other property. Several Hollywood stars -- including Burt Lancaster and Ray Bolger -- helped fight the fire.

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

The Universal lot has seen several big fires, too. 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 at Universal Studios, 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 and to temporarily close entrances where Republican Party faithful were trying to get to the Universal City Hilton for election night celebrations.

The 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 hit movie was made; and the set where "Ben Hur" was filmed.
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