Flammable Film Sets Blamed for Universal Studios Blaze

The Universal Studios fire that gutted a mechanical King Kong and the Town Square seen in “Back to the Future” was not exacerbated by a lack of waterpower, according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the county Department of Public Works on June 13. The 45-page report blamed the highly flammable materials and tightly packed set facades and warehouses for aggravating the June 1 fire.

Also, water sprinklers that were added after a 1990 blaze failed, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman at a 5 p.m. press conference last Friday at Los Angeles County Fire Department headquarters.

Three employees repairing a roof on one of Universal Studios backlots accidentally caused the inferno that destroyed 3.5 acres.

Two workers and a supervisor were using a blowtorch to apply asphalt shingles on the roof façade of the “New York Street” set once used for exterior shots in “Seinfeld'” and “NYPD Blue.” The workers finished around 3 a.m., watched the roof for signs of fire as required, then took an hour-long break. Around 4:43 a.m., a security guard saw flames and alerted the fire department, which arrived four minutes later.

Ten hours later, the “New York Street” and “New Jersey Street” sets were destroyed, along with a video library, sound stages and the alley made famous in “The Sting.”

Nine firefighters and a sheriff's deputy suffered minor injuries.

Firefighters were hampered in the early stages of the blaze because of the lack of water pressure. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called for an investigation into whether the 18-year-old sprinkler system or the lack of water pressure hampered firefighters’ efforts.

However, Freeman said the drop in water pressure was most likely the result of the extraordinarily large amount of water firefighters poured on the blaze. Instead, Freeman blamed the backlot sets and buildings that were made largely of highly combustible materials such as plywood and plastic for exacerbating the June 1 inferno.

Freeman said Universal Studios and other Hollywood production companies should look into changing the materials they use to build the sets to make them less flammable.


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