Aerial view of the Central Garden, Research Institute and Museum special exhibition space.

Well-irrigated plantings in the Central Garden, including an expansive lawn, provide an effective fire deterrent. The Getty Museum building is at left, the Getty Research Institute building at right.

A major brush fire, dubbed the Getty Fire, broke out in the early morning hours of October 28, 2019, and consumed over 600 acres to the north and west of the Getty Center. Many of you—our visitors, readers, and followers on social media—were immediately concerned about the safety not only of firefighters, nearby residents, and staff, but also of the precious artworks and archival collections housed at the Getty. Were there plans to evacuate the collection?

There is no need to evacuate the art or archives, because they are already in the safest place possible: the Getty Center itself. Opened in 1997, the Center is a marvel of anti-fire engineering. Both indoors and outdoors, its materials, design, construction, operations, and controls are purpose-built for safety.

RELATED: Getty Center Safe and Secure after Mass Efforts in Getty Fire

A Fire-Resistant Landscape

The Getty’s architecture and landscaping were designed with fire prevention in mind. The buildings are made of highly fire-resistant stone, concrete, and protected steel.

The Getty campus features wide-open travertine plazas with extensive open space around the buildings to slow down a fire, and the landscaping is well-irrigated throughout.

A view overlooking the Getty's Garden Terrace cafe showing large travertine columns.

Expanses of metal and travertine stone provide additional fire protection in the Getty Center’s design. This view overlooks the Garden Terrace Cafe, with the Getty Research Institute in the distance. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

Fire awareness and prevention is a continual process, said Brian Houck, the Getty’s head of grounds and gardens. Watering systems are continually adjusted based on conditions on the ground. “We’re looking at any dry areas and adjusting the irrigation accordingly,” said Houck in response to the current fire.

Fire-resistant landscaping spans the Getty campus and the surrounding land. This includes drought-resistant plants and oak trees, whose canopies are regularly pruned to prevent them from becoming fuel for fire. The ground underneath is also cleared regularly. The Getty’s Central Garden is the most-watered landscaping on the site and is surrounded by grass and an irrigation system that can be employed to create a buffer against a fire.

In addition to year-round landscaping, the grounds team is responsible for ongoing storm drain clearance and road maintenance and for insuring that all irrigation systems are working.

With the recent dry weather and high winds, the grounds crew was aware of fire risk. “We knew we were coming into a red flag situation and we began pre-planning,” said Mike Rogers, Getty’s director of facilities. “As soon as we get a red flag warning, we start to mobilize our monitoring of temperature and humidity conditions.”

Procedures were immediately put into place to make sure there was adequate staffing and on-site preparation. The grounds crew assisted firefighters by preparing the ground to decrease risks. They also turned on irrigation to help saturate areas where fire fighters are working.

“Emergency planning and safety are things we do all year round. That’s part of our Getty culture, to think about fire safety,” said Rogers.

Brian Houck, head of Grounds & Gardens, drives a cart around Getty land. He's shot in profile, looking forward at the road.

Brian Houck, head of grounds and gardens at Getty, surveys the site on the morning of October 29, 2019. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

A sprinkler showing the above ground water system at Getty.

Sprinklers around Getty Center’s hillsides form an above-ground watering system. Getty staff saturated this hill on the night of October 28, 2019, to reduce fire danger. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

A pink ribbon dangles from a tree.

Getty staff works hand in hand with emergency responders. Municipal fire teams tied pink ribbons around Getty’s property to help them read wind direction at a glance. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

A white board with Tuesday's for the Grounds & Gardens staff.

October 29, 2019: An active day of priorities for the Getty’s grounds and gardens staff, who are assisting in keeping the site safe during the Getty Fire. Multiple Getty teams actively assist with fire preparation and response, both during incidents and year-round. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

Two security officers watch as a helicopter dumps water onto a small fire flare up north of the Getty Center.

Getty staff has ongoing close cooperation with emergency response agencies. Here, two Getty security officers monitor operations as a helicopter drops water onto a hill north of the Getty Center. Photo: Christopher Sprinkle

Keeping Art Safe Inside

Inside the Getty Center, the art galleries, library, and artwork storage areas are equally well- engineered, with state-of-the-art features that make them the safest possible place for art and archives during a fire.

The Getty Center is considered a high rise, so it has very special fire protections in place, said Rogers.

Walls are built of reinforced concrete or fire-protected steel, while the buildings are designed with fire separations, in which doors can isolate any problem areas from the rest of the site. “With separations, if a fire starts, it doesn’t have the ability to travel,” Rogers said.

Roofs are also covered with stone aggregate, which is fire-resistant.

To guard against smoke that could harm people and damage art, a carbon-filtered air conditioning system maintains a pressure flow—which can be increased as needed—that pressurizes the building to keep smoke and ash out. “If there’s a fire in the building, we have ways to manage smoke so people can evacuate safely, and firefighters can get in and deal with it quickly,” Rogers explains.

Wide-angle view of a museum gallery with mushroom-colored walls, a wood floor, and paintings in gold frames

Complex engineering systems protect art in the Getty Center galleries from smoke and fire. Here, paintings on the second level of the West Pavilion, with Van Gogh’s Irises at left.

Photo inside the Getty Center library showing its curve white walls and shelves of horizontal books.

The Getty Center’s library, archives, and art-storage areas are also thoroughly protected against fire. Here, a view of some of the stacks in the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute. All buildings at the Getty Center remain safe in the face of the Getty Fire.

Fire sprinklers are also plentifully available, but are kept completely dry to avoid accidental water intrusion—and are activated only as a last resort. Rogers says they’ve never needed to be used. In addition, there is a one-million-gallon water storage tank on site as an alternate or additional water supply that can support fire sprinklers and hydrants as necessary.

“We have a very significant building here,” reflects Rogers. “It was well thought-out and carefully constructed, and is very carefully maintained and operated. I’m very proud of that, and of our incredible team. We feel very safe here.”