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Sitting in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center is no stranger to wildfires in its proximity. Just two years ago during the Skirball Fire, a small fire started on the museum’s adjoining hill. It was put out without incident, in part thanks to the Getty’s massive irrigation system.
“The safest place for the artwork to be is right here in the Getty Center,” then-vice president of communications for the J. Paul Getty Trust, Ron Hartwig, said at the time.
On Monday, an even larger fire that bears the museum’s name— the Getty Fire — was burning near its campus and forced thousands to evacuate the area. But the museum, home to 1, 000 – year-old manuscripts, multimillion -dollar paintings and the world’s largest art library, has no plans to evacuate its treasures. The museum holds 125, 000 objects of art and 1.4 million volumes in its library.
“We’ve sealed all of the archives, all of the galleries. No one is going in or out, “current vice president of communications Lisa Lapin said.
The Getty Center’s security team heard news of the fire crackling on the scanner shortly before 2 am Monday. The museum’s emergency operations center was activated.
Heavy, double doors locked in place, hermetically sealing every gallery — including a current exhibition of irreplaceable Manet paintings — and archive zone. The air system switched to recycled — much like a car — guaranteeing smoky outside air couldn’t reach the artworks and historic documents explained Lapin.
Why the Getty is so fire-resistant
The $ 1 billion-complex was designed by Richard Meier and completed more than 20 years ago. His design included safeguards for both earthquakes and fires.
The complex includes 1.3 million square feet of thick travertine stone, a highly fire-resistant material that lines the museum buildings’ outside walls. The crushed stone used on the roofs of the museum buildings is also fire-resistant.
Inside, reinforced concrete walls and automatic folding fire doors can trap fires in the unlikely event fire enters or starts inside. The Getty’s air-conditioning system can push smoke out instead of letting it in.
On-site is also a 1 million-gallon water tank that sits underground, below the museum’s parking lot. It supplies water to an irrigation system that includes a network of pipes on the property.
But the idea is to avoid a fire – and water damage.
“You don’t want to use sprinklers if possible,” noted Lapin, because water could damage fragile, rare works.
How close did the Getty Fire come to the museum?
The fire did reach the campus, Lapin said, racing down from a ridge above to the Tram parking area where all visitors begin their journey , about a mile below the main campus. When day broke, helicopters and air tankers began “an aggressive attack” on the flames, said Lapin. “They’re real heroes.”
The outdoor visitor plaza and sculptures have also not been damaged, she said. “We will be cleaning up some ash, though.”
By mid-morning, fire trucks were parked in the central plaza, as a precaution, but also because the spot offers excellent views of the surrounding hillsides and canyons, where the fire had fingered its way in, burning some homes.
The complex is normally closed on Mondays to the public, but nearly all of the 800 to 1, 000 staff were told to work from home, with a core group of about a dozen staffers, along with full security teams, at the on-site emergency center.
As of early Monday afternoon, the Getty Fire was at zero containment and had grown to 618 acres. About 1, 100 firefighters were battling the blaze.
Janet Wilson is an environmental reporter with the Desert Sun. Follow her on Twitter at@ janetwilson 66
Nate Chute is a producer with the USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter at @nchute.
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