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Water glitches hamper fight against studio fire

A fast-moving blaze at Universal Hollywood's back lot destroys 'King Kong' tour and burns the sets of iconic films.

June 02, 2008|Bettina Boxall, Ari B. Bloomekatz and Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writers

Low water pressure and an overwhelmed sprinkler system hampered the fight against a fast-moving fire that tore through two city blocks at the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot Sunday, destroying the "King Kong" tour and burning the sets for such blockbuster movies as "Back to the Future" and "Bruce Almighty."

The fire raged and smoldered for much of the day, sending up a huge cloud of smoke visible for miles. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman ordered an inquiry into whether the lack of water pressure in Universal's fire protection system allowed the blaze to get out of control at the world-famous studio and theme park.

"The water came out of hoses anemically," Yaroslavsky said. "The water-pressure issue is going to be the postmortem issue of this fire."

Some firefighters on the scene could get only a 10-foot spray from park hydrants and were unable to reach the vaulting flames.

The fire, fueled by highly combustible facades and lumber, rendered a sprinkler system on outdoor sets nearly useless, Freeman said.

Firefighters resorted to pumping water from two man-made studio ponds, including one that is home to the animatronic "Jaws" attraction. They also snaked hundreds of yards of hoses to street hydrants outside the park.

Nine firefighters and a sheriff's deputy were injured in the blaze, which was punctuated with 100-foot flames, early-morning explosions and then a second afternoon explosion as it consumed a cavernous video warehouse.

The cause of the fire was under investigation, Freeman said. Universal representatives declined to comment about the cause and the water-pressure issues.

The blaze erupted at 4:45 a.m. on New York Street -- a location that has played host to scenes for such films as "Batman and Robin" and "Austin Powers."

The flames churned through the open-air wood and plastic construction and to the adjacent sets, incinerating the 30-foot animatronic King Kong and damaging Courthouse Square, which played a prominent role in "Back to the Future," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Inherit the Wind."

Calm winds and a light marine layer kept the fire from spreading into the brush-covered hills nearby.

Yet the blaze engulfed the videotape warehouse, containing archives of television shows and movies dating to the 1920s. NBC Universal Chief Executive Ron Meyer said the tapes were copies and could be replaced.

By dawn, the towering cloud of black smoke made it look as if Hollywood was producing a film about its own doomsday.

The first 30 firefighters responding to the blaze showered the sets from three ladder trucks, said Daryl Jacobs, a county Fire Department spokesman. At that time, the water pressure was fine, he said.

By 6:30 a.m., as the fire turned into a conflagration, about 350 to 400 firefighters, with more than 20 ladder trucks and 40 engines, surrounded the area, spraying water-mixed foam retardant. As more firefighters sucked up more water, the water pressure began to drop precipitously.

County Fire Inspector James Barnes got word that some ladder trucks -- designed to jet up to 1,000 gallons a minute into burning buildings -- did not have enough force to reach the core of the flames.

"We all know there were challenges with water," Barnes said. "Whether the fire got bigger as a result, I could not tell you."

Commanders called in two water tanker trucks -- carrying 6,000 and 2,000 gallons -- and two helicopters, which dropped water for about an hour.

Barnes said that with so much equipment trying to converge on the area, many engines had trouble squeezing into the narrow streets. "Back there it's really tight, tight quarters," he said.

The fire burned in the video warehouse until late in the afternoon. A firefighter and a sheriff's deputy suffered minor injuries when they were knocked off their feet by a large explosion in the warehouse about 2:45 p.m., officials said.

As the fire threat receded, officials turned their attention to the problematic lack of water pressure.

Though the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power supplies Universal with water, the park is in unincorporated county territory and maintains its own system of mains, pumps and hydrants.

DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said the agency tried to boost water pressure from its end, but the effort "had a negligible effect."

The DWP has upgraded its own system to ensure firefighters have sufficient pressure in Griffith Park and parts of the Hollywood Hills.

After a fire in 1990 roared through four acres of the back lot in 1990, Universal Studios installed a large sprinkler system designed to deluge flames, but it didn't seem to work Sunday.

"It appears the fire this morning overwhelmed fire-protection features," Freeman said. He said his department would look into the system.

"We're going to readily and quickly reevaluate that and see if that had any impact on the water pressure."

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