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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”