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BLAZE ON THE BACK LOT : NEIGHBORS

This time, smoke and helicopters are real

June 02, 2008

Ben Neumann can see the "Waterworld" ride from his house overlooking Universal Studios, so he's used to fireworks. But when his young sons woke him up early Sunday, Neumann knew something was amiss.

"The smoke was so dark and it smelled so strongly that I was immediately worried," he said.

Neumann, president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, was among thousands of residents who awoke Sunday to the sound of helicopters and the smell of ash after a studio back lot caught fire at 4:45 a.m. Because they live so close to the studio, many are accustomed to movie-related disturbances but said Sunday's blaze was still surreal.

Eric Chapman lives in the 3200 block of Hillock Drive bordering the eastern side of the studio grounds, so when he heard helicopters overhead at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, he assumed it was just an ill-timed film shoot. But then Chapman walked up the ridge to take a closer look and saw flames reaching into the sky, he said. "I realized it wasn't just a movie," he said.

Residents are somewhat accustomed to smoke -- the nearby Griffith Park blaze broke out nearly a year ago -- but Neumann said Sunday's incident was alarming.

"Griffith Park . . . smelled like wood. This smelled like you were burning plastic," Neumann said. After sending e-mails alerting neighbors and members of the neighborhood council to the fire, Neumann packed his family into the car and headed to the Westside.

As Neumann drove away, his sons, Ben Connor, 8, and Justin, 6, were distraught. The brothers visit the Universal Studios theme park two or three times a year and couldn't bear to watch flames engulf their favorite attraction.

"Daddy, Daddy, 'King Kong' is burning," they said.

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