Water Pressure Hampered Firefighters’ Efforts at Universal Studios

June 3, 2008

California authorities will try to determine whether the blaze that destroyed some of Hollywood’s most famous backdrops was made worse by low water pressure and an overwhelmed sprinkler system.

At one point, the June 1 fire was two city blocks wide, and low water pressure forced firefighters to get reserves from lakes and ponds on the 400-acre (160-hectare) property. The blaze was contained to the back lot, but burned for more than 12 hours before the final flames were extinguished.

“The water pressure situation was a challenge,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said. “This fire moved extremely fast.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said authorities would investigate the water problems to see whether they reflect a larger shortfall in the area.

In addition, the sprinkler system on the outdoor sets was nearly useless, Freeman told the Los Angeles Times for the June 2 editions.

The cause of the blaze had not yet been determined.

Universal Studios is a theme park and its back lot is a working studio, complete with streetscapes and soundstages. The fire, which broke out around 4:30 a.m. June 1, destroyed the courthouse square from “Back to the Future.”

Damage estimates were not available, but costs are expected to move into the millions. The park was to reopen Monday.

It was the second fire at the historic site in two decades, leveling facades, hollowing out buildings and creating the kind of catastrophe filmmakers relish re-creating. This time around, thousands of videos chronicling Universal’s movie and TV shows were destroyed in the blaze.

But Universal officials said that they were thankful no visitors were seriously injured — though several firefighters suffered minor injuries — and that the damaged footage can be replaced.

“We have duplicates of everything,” said NBC Universal President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer. “Nothing is lost forever.”

Two mock New York and New England streets used both for movies such as “Bruce Almighty,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers” and as tourist displays were a total loss, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Darryl Jacobs said.

The city streetscape has recently served as a backdrop in television shows like “Monk,” “Crossing Jordan” and “House,” said NBC Universal spokeswoman Cindy Gardner. A set used for the Clint Eastwood-directed movie “Changeling” featuring Angelina Jolie also was destroyed, Meyer said.

Along with the courthouse square, the famous clock tower that enabled Michael J. Fox’s character in “Back to the Future” to travel through time was damaged, fire officials said.

Ten people — nine firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy — suffered minor injuries in the blaze.

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