Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

Southern California has always faced wildfires, but in recent years the threat has grown. Both the Getty Center and the Getty Villa are situated in the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounded by brushland, making them particularly vulnerable to the increased fire risk. In October 2019, the eponymous “Getty Fire” roared through the Santa Monicas near the Getty Center for days. But the Getty staff were prepared for just such a situation.

In this episode, we hear about the preparation for and response to the Getty Fire from Getty’s director of security Bob Combs; director of facilities Mike Rogers; vice president of communications Lisa Lapin; and chief financial officer and chief operating officer Steve Olsen.

More to explore:

After the Fire, Getty Works to Protect Hillsides and Neighbors
Why the Getty Center Is the Safest Place for Art During a Fire


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
BOB COMBS: You’re anxious. The adrenaline starts pumping. And it was clear it was very serious. But really, at the same time, I was confident that we had prepared for this exact scenario. So you just take a deep breath and take action.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty colleagues about the Getty Fire and our responses to it.
Early on the morning of October 28, I received a phone call from the Getty’s emergency operation center that a fire was threatening the Getty Center. That began a week of intense work for all of us at the Getty. Although the buildings and collections were not damaged, it was the worst fire to threaten the Getty Center in more than a decade.
Three weeks after the so-called Getty Fire, I met with the Getty’s chief financial and operations officer, Steve Olson, vice president for communications, Lisa Lapin, director of security, Bob Combs, and director of facilities, Mike Rogers, to look back at the fire and discuss how we responded to it and what we learned from it.
Thanks Steve, Bob, Mike, and Lisa, for joining me on the podcast this morning to talk about the Getty and the fire that threatened the Getty.
Steve, what time and how was the Getty contacted about the fire threat?
STEVE OLSEN: Well, Jim, I should start by saying that the fire was not a surprise. I think you recall that there were major fires in Northern California the preceding week, and the National Weather Service had notified the entire state of red flag conditions. I think the term that they used was extreme fire hazards. And this was a result of a forecast for Santa Ana winds. These are hot, dry, and very powerful winds that come from the northeast.
And so the Getty and all of its team were ready. We had staff here overnight that were keeping an eye out for an event that might occur. And in fact, it did.
Early in the morning, around 1:30 a.m. on Monday the 27th of October, the L.A. Fire Department received a 911 call from a motorist about a fire that started just off of Sepulveda Boulevard, about mile north of the main entrance of the Getty Center. And within a few minutes, one of our security personnel spotted the fire and reported it to our operations center. And that began a process of notification of our staff and our management, that there was a potential for a fire emergency. And that’s how it all started.
CUNO: So Bob, how was it that the security person spotted the fire? Do we have them surveying the fields on a regular basis generally?
BOB COMBS: Well, yes. We have regular site posts, site patrol units, and we typically have an officer stationed near the front entrance of the Getty Center, right off Sepulveda, inside the gates there. And that was, in fact, the officer that saw the fire off at a distance to the north.
He radioed to the security control room to let them know his observation, and the control room them proceeded to call 911. And the 911 operator said that they had just learned of the fire through a motorist, who had called it in slightly before him.
CUNO: So how quickly did it become a serious fire?
OLSEN: It was apparent that it was moving very quickly, just from the glow and the number of emergency response units, the fire units that were whizzing by the gates. So it was very apparent to our staff onsite that it had the potential to be quite a serious incident.
CUNO: What’s the sequence of calls that you have to make to bring the right people into the Getty Center to be prepared to deal with the fire?
COMBS: Well, once an incident is viewed as significant enough to really be a potential threat, we activate our emergency plan. It’s based on what’s known as the Incident Command System. That’s the system that the fired department and the police department use to manage major incidents, and we’ve adapted that for our own use.
That has all the normal things you have, plus other collection-related elements built into the emergency plan. So we activate the Emergency Operations Center. We then start going down a list of emergency contacts, to make sure key personnel are aware of the incident and able to respond.
CUNO: Now, when I arrived here at the Emergency Ops Center, it was about 3:00 in the morning, I think, and Brentwood was in the midst of a mass evacuation, with cars streaming south out of Brentwood, towards San Vincente. And the hills were on fire and police and fire trucks were everywhere. It felt extremely dangerous and threatening. How did it feel to you, given how prepared you knew we were?
COMBS: Well, of course, you’re anxious. The adrenaline starts pumping. And it was clear it was very serious. But really, at the same time, I was confident that we had prepared for this exact scenario. So you just take a deep breath and take action.
CUNO: We’re surrounded by big flatscreen TVs, and I know some of them are connected to cameras that we’ve got onsite, and others are connected to broadcast channels so we can sort of track what’s going on generally in Greater Los Angeles, let’s say. Could you describe the Emergency Ops Center we’re in and what it comprises?
COMBS: Absolutely. So we’re looking at our Emergency Operations Center. It doubles as a conference room-training room, when there’s no emergency in progress, but it has a lot of equipment. We’re able to bring in any of the cameras that we have onsite, either at the Getty Center or the Getty Villa. And it has communications equipment, radio equipment, so we can contact staff throughout our radio system. We can also monitor media, so local television stations and so forth. So that it really becomes the hub of operation.
CUNO: I know we have regular drills that help us understand what we need to do to respond to threats like this, but did everything go as you thought it should go?
COMBS: Well, all the planning in the world and all the drills prepare you; but the situation you face is never the same, of course, as the one that you’ve exactly envisioned, so there’s always differences. But the planning effort is absolutely a key factor in our ability to deal with the situation.
It was no secret that we could potentially face a fire like this. There’ve been fires in the past. However, the buildings are incredibly fire-resistive and we have conducted a very comprehensive emergency drill every year for over thirty years, both at the Center and the Villa, to practice scenarios such as this.
We also have worked very closely with the emergency agencies, such as the Los Angeles Fire Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, to do pre-fire planning, where they will come and work with us, go through a tabletop exercise. They participate in our drills, so that they become very familiar with our site, with our staff, with knowing how our entrances operate, how to get onsite and offsite. And we really work together as a team.
CUNO: What is a tabletop exercise?
COMBS: So a tabletop is a way of simulating an actual emergency by gathering around in a room not dissimilar from this one, key individuals from very different departments such as facilities, communications, HR, the various operation groups. And then describing a scenario such as, “Okay, it’s two p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and we’re facing suddenly a fire or an earthquake” or whatever scenario we want to practice. And each person describes the actions they’d be taking, the resources they would need, and checklists that they have in place, to think through together what we would be doing at this point.
And then we accelerate the time a little bit. You know, pretend it’s now thirty minutes later, and what would we be doing? And it’s a way of really practicing the steps and the maneuvers you’d have to conduct in an actual emergency. Also to point out where the flaws are, where the shortcomings are, so we can prepare. Maybe we need some extra equipment or supplies or some additional training. And it’s an iterative process. So each time we do this, we get a little better. And it’s a way of really practicing, so that we’re not trying it out for the first time in a real emergency.
CUNO: How quickly were we able to assemble the people we needed?
COMBS: The emergency plan starts off with the folks who are here onsite at the time of the emergency. So that means security staff and facilities staff who are here twenty-four hours. And it’s designed to work with those staff alone, if in fact, no one else can get here. Because we know traffic can be very quickly disrupted onsite, and it could be quite difficult for others to join us at this location or at the Villa.
So the initial response starts immediately. And then as folks fold in, then they join the operation, and they assume different positions as they respond onsite.
We had some remarkably quick responses. It was really incredible how fast folks responded from the initial call. Two or our security managers were onsite in a very short order. Lisa, our Vice President of Communications, was onsite very quickly; as was Nancy, our HR Director.
CUNO: I remember one of the things that was so concerning was the 405 was open at least some part of the time, but the exits off the 405 were closed. So one had to get way beyond the Getty to come backtrack on the Getty on surface streets to make your way onsite. And I know that Steve had some complications that way getting in from home. What was it like for you coming up from Newport? Newport, is that where you are?
OLSEN: From the South Bay, from Manhattan Beach. Well, on Monday, the roads were clear. I had no problem getting here.
CUNO: Early Monday morning.
OLSEN: Early Monday morning. Tuesday was a nightmare. And it wasn’t because of freeway closures; the freeways were open. The problem was that the exits were closed. And as a result, I found myself going all the way into the San Fernando Valley before I could turn around, get back on the freeway. And it took me about two and a half hours to get from Manhattan Beach to the Getty Center on Tuesday morning. So I conducted much of my coordination and communications function by cell phone from my car.
CUNO: Bob, you were at the command center for the Fire Department itself. Where was that and what was that like?
COMBS: So initially, the command center was on Sepulveda, right at the front of the main entrance of the Getty Center, where they kinda made it a unified command there. But that didn’t last very long because the realization that the fire was growing large and that was a little too close. So they backed it off to Sunset, on the bridge over the 405. And that was the location of a command post for, again, a short time.
It was quite difficult to make it to that location, and the number of agencies responding were large. And again, as the fire continued to grow larger, eventually the command post moved to the VA, right by Jackie Robinson Stadium. And that eventually became an incredibly robust what they call unified command, that had dozens of agencies.
CUNO: Was it as big a command center as you have ever seen?
COMBS: Absolutely. We’ve participated in command posts like that before, ’cause one of our plans is we insert a person at the unified command, so that we can provide liaison with all the different agencies who are there, and provide communication. And this was really, the largest unified command I’ve ever seen.
CUNO: Who were you in contact with, or who were we in contact with at the command center?
COMBS: So the first thing when you respond there, there’s always what’s known as a liaison officer. Easy to spot, ’cause he or she’s wearing a green vest that says Liaison Officer. So I made a beeline for the person wearing the green vest, the liaison officer. Checked in with that person, said I was with the Getty.
I found it’s very helpful to have a Getty cap, so I actually put a Getty cap on, I have a vest that said Getty, ’cause there’s literally a thousand people walking around. So made contact with the liaison officer, and then quickly made contact with the deputy chief, who was the incident commander for the overall incident, and let them know that there was a Getty representative onsite.
And they were extraordinarily helpful in briefing us on the situation so we could relay it to the Emergency Operations Center. In fact, we did periodic briefings through Facetime. We could just literally hold up a phone on FaceTime, and FaceTime with the Emergency Operations staff, to provide the ability to ask questions of command staff, and be able to provide assistance to the fire department.
CUNO: How often did the fire department actually come up here onsite?
COMBS: I would say command staff of different types would appear probably about every hour or so, just to check in. We had many, many fire apparatus onsite, from agencies all throughout the state. And we checked in, in a number of ways, both at the unified command; we checked in through text messaging, with some of the key command staff with LAFD; and we checked in onsite here when different, you know, captains or deputy chiefs would actually come to our Emergency Operations Center, have a quick conversation, just to clarify the situation. And so it was quite a robust communication e effort.
CUNO: Yeah. One of the big aspects of communication is communicating with staff. And Lisa, how quickly did we communicate with staff and what did we say to staff?
LISA LAPIN: We were able to use our Getty Alert System, which is our text messaging emergency notification system, as well as email. The first communications went out at 3:43 a.m. Actually, they could’ve gone out earlier, but we wanted to touch base with all the senior leadership about the fact that we were going to close the Getty Center for the day on Monday. And that was the first of what were dozens of communications to staff over the next several days.
CUNO: What kind of communications system did we have in place for the Getty Villa?
MIKE ROGERS: Well, we made decisions with security and the folks here to close the Villa during this time. That was also to aid in the fire response in the city. And we communicated very quickly, and I think effectively, over there. We had staff positioned, should we ever have any additional fire risk moving in that direction. The fire did not get too close to the Villa. It was several miles away during that time, and the fire department was very effective at getting the fire stopped before it moved towards the Villa.
CUNO: But nevertheless, we had to close. And that was for traffic reasons as much as anything else.
ROGERS: Right. It was to support the firefighting operations within Los Angeles. You can imagine, there were enormous amount of resources that were coming into Los Angeles to fight this fire, through the San Fernando Valley, down Pacific Coast Highway. We saw crews coming from Ventura, Santa Barbara areas, in order to support the fire fight. So they were bringing in equipment in those directions, too.
CUNO: What about external contacts? That is, press. When did we get the first inquiry?
LAPIN: So the press started calling and emailing us before four a.m. And the first inquiries actually came from abroad. They came from France and from the UK, because people were awake there and seeing the news. The local press started calling about five o’clock in the morning, when they woke up to see what was happening in our vicinity. The Getty is a global brand, and that was quite apparent throughout the entire fire situation.
CUNO: What kind of questions did they ask you?
LAPIN: Their primary questions were: Is the art safe? And what are we doing to protect the art? We are well known for our fire prevention measures, and a number of them were familiar with the fact that we have tremendous fire protection here. They wanted detail about that. But because the fire was called the Getty Fire and it implied, perhaps, that the situation was more dire for the Getty Center facility and buildings themselves than it actually was. And of course, when people see flames on television and they don’t understand, necessarily, the geography of our landscape, it might appear that our buildings were at greater threat than they actually were.
So they wanted to know what we were doing to keep the art safe. And we reassured them repeatedly that the art was very, very secure inside our buildings. It was safe even from smoke.
I did twenty-two media interviews on Monday alone, with media from around the world, to help get the message out that the Getty Center itself and our facilities were very well protected and that the art was safe and secure.
CUNO: Did you have to resolve some confusion that people had? Not only about the Getty Fire itself, the implication that the Getty itself was on fire, but just generally about fires?
LAPIN: Yes. I mean, you know, there’s been a lot of publicity around the world about California and its fire situation. There were already some serious fires this fire season, so when they hear things like the fact that Brentwood was evacuated, people think the worst. And they presume that we’re facing the absolute worst. And while this was a very serious situation, we were very confident throughout that the Getty Center was very safe and secure. The news reports can look a little bit more sensational than the actual reality.
CUNO: How did we monitor press reaction?
LAPIN: This Emergency Operations Center, where we’re sitting right now, it has tremendous capabilities. And one of those is, we have five very large screen monitors that allow us to see live television coverage. So we can see the aerial views from the helicopters. We also could get a live Twitter feed from all of the Twitter conversation that was happening related to the fire, including all of the Twitter that was coming from the emergency responders.
So we were able to, just sitting here in the EOC, see in very real time what was being said out in the world about us, from all kinds of sources. It’s an amazing capability, and this is the first time we’ve had an emergency where we’ve actually been able to use that live Twitter stream coming right here on the big screen into the EOC. So we were monitoring that all the time.
My team was also at home monitoring everything very closely, including all social media, to make sure that there was no false information being shared on social media, or rumors, incorrect, and inaccurate information being shared on social media. And I should note that social media was a very important tool for us throughout the fire, to notify the world also that we were safe and secure.
So one of the first things that we did very early in the morning, about simultaneous to notifying staff, is that we posted a photograph of the Getty Center on our social media feeds, on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. And it showed that the Getty was just fine. The lights were on. There wasn’t even smoke visible around our buildings. And that kind of photograph was very reassuring to people who turn to social media for the status of emergencies these days.
And we continued to use social media very aggressively throughout the fire. And we posted photography throughout, so that people could see for themselves what the Getty Center looked like, as juxtaposed to, say, television images of flames that were farther away from the Getty Center itself.
CUNO: I remember how important it was to communicate regularly with the staff, as you just mentioned, Lisa. But particularly the leadership of the Getty Center and the Getty Villa. And Steve, you were instrumental in gathering that information and conveying it to the leadership. And tell us about that.
OLSEN: One thing that you learn as you participate in a series of emergencies is that lines of communication are often unclear, multiple, contradictory. And as sophisticated as our Emergency Operations Center can be, often there’s no substitute for getting on the phone and calling somebody up who is on the scene and asking them what’s going on.
And that was a role that I tried to play by keeping in direct contact with our leadership, because they had information about how the fire was affecting the different programs and departments, and I was able to bring that back for discussion with the Emergency Operations group. And that really helped our decision making.
CUNO: Now, our podcast listeners will probably be surprised to know that we’ve got as many visiting scholars, residential, as we do have, and that they are resident in an apartment building on Sunset, and had to be evacuated because of the fire. Tell us about that and how we responded to their situation.
OLSEN: The residents at the scholars’ residence didn’t wait for us to contact them. They were actually notified by public authorities through email and cell phone messages that were pushed out to them. And they learned around 2:30 in the morning that there was an evacuation order, and they were prepared. And so they began an orderly process, and we began coordinating with them around three o’clock, 3:30 in the morning.
Many of them left in their own vehicles, and we provided a shuttle to pick up and—
CUNO: [over Olsen] Where did they go?
OLSEN: Well, this particular evacuation was massive. There were, in the Brentwood and Pacific Palisades area, there were over 7,000 residences that were subject to the mandatory evacuation order. And so they all drove their vehicles out onto Sunset Boulevard at about the same time. So it was slow going.
As people evacuated, some of them went to the Westwood Recreation Center, which was the publicly designated assembly area for evacuation. Others visited the homes of friends or colleagues. Many Getty employees stepped up and offered to house the scholars and their families that had been displaced by the fire. But we also found ourselves with around a dozen or more of our resident scholars that didn’t have a place to go.
I contacted Mary Miller, the Director of the Getty Research Institute, which is responsible for operating the Getty Scholar Program to identify alternative places for the scholars to stay. And the big breakthrough was, I was able to secure a dozen rooms at UCLA’s Luskin Conference Center. And that was the asset that we needed, in order to assure that all of the scholars would have adequate, comfortable, and safe housing throughout the duration of the emergency.
CUNO: How long were they evacuated?
OLSEN: The evacuation extended from the early morning hours of Monday, and the last evacuation order was lifted at ten o’clock in the morning on Thursday.
CUNO: Mike, at risk, of course, were our buildings. And they are also some of our greatest assets for the protection of our collections. So tell us about the buildings. And then we’ll go out and talk about the buildings onsite.
ROGERS: So Jim, when we bought the property in 1985 and started to plan our design and construction, we really felt that a fire-resistant building was really key to the Getty Center so we hired design consultants and experts to help us think about fire protection, fire prevention, systems that would help protect not only the visitors and the art, but then basically, really protect the buildings over time.
We knew we wanted the best highly-resistive fire construction we could get. So we made a decision to use what is considered type-1 construction. That is, reinforced concrete or fire-protective steel. You often see this in high-rises in the United States. It’s the most fire-resistive system you can have. When you consider that type of system compared to a house that we all live in, that’s considered a type-5 building. That’s often wood frame; it’s completely on the opposite end of the fire-protective system.
We have nearly 1.2 million square feet of travertine that the building’s clad in, that is highly fire-resistive. We have crushed stone on the roof that helps the buildings. We have very protective glass. We have an extensive fire protection system, building sprinklers and building controls.
This system has the ability to help monitor the HVAC system, the collection environment. We can monitor what’s happening with smoke and debris. We have the ability to increase pressure in the building through the HVAC system to keep smoke and debris out. One of the other things we have here is an incredible HVAC system with filtration that allows us to really thoroughly clean the air, remove all the particulate.
Should a fire ever start and get into the building in some, you know, really remote way, we have fire separations that basically compartmentalize areas of the building so fire can’t spread.
Outside the building, we have very significant systems in place with irrigation, to help during a fire. So if a fire begins in an area like in the recent Getty Fire, we can activate the irrigation system, wet the areas down, and that really significantly helps us so embers can’t start. So that’s one of the first things we do with our procedures, working with the security team.
One other one that is just great to have that we really enjoy is we have a million-gallon water tank here. So should we lose all the domestic water that’s provided by the city, we can use that water to manage our fire sprinklers and also our hydrants. And that’s one of the things the Los Angeles Fire Department is really pleased we have up here. So no matter what happens, we have a water supply.
In terms of redundancy, there’s kind of a key word here at the Getty within the facility group. We think about it in terms of redundant water supply. We have redundant power; we have multiple supplies of power from the public utility grid. We have redundancy in the fire sprinkler system, and we have redundancy a lotta the HVAC systems.
CUNO: Did the systems perform as you expected?
ROGERS: All the systems performed exceptionally well. And I’m just very pleased how the buildings did during the fire.
CUNO: Why don’t we go now out onto the Arrival Plaza and take a look at the buildings and the site from the Getty itself.
Okay, we’re standing on the Tram Arrival Plaza. It’s where the visitors arrive at the Getty Center, before they make their way up into the museum or to one of the other facilities that we have here onsite. And from here, we can look out onto the Getty property and the neighboring properties that were burned by the fire. Maybe Mike, you can tell us about what we are looking at.
ROGERS: Well, you can see in the distance here, this is a large area of our property, what we call the Open Space Parcel, just north of the Getty Center building site proper.
CUNO: How many acres is the parcel?
ROGERS: Well, overall, that’s about 600 acres right there, and we have a total of 750 acres here on the site area in total.
CUNO: And how much was burned?
ROGERS: It looks like there were approximately 500 acres initially; that’s what we’re looking at.
CUNO: And when I say burned, what do I mean by that?
ROGERS: Well, a fire went through this brush, which is sort of like a Mediterranean-looking climate here, of brush and different native plant materials. And it moved very quickly thorough this area here. It’s very hilly in this area, with some deep ravines. And Jim, you can see in the distance, you can see fire breaks that have been constructed during the fire.
CUNO: Yeah, the fire breaks make it look like a dirt road running through the hills.
ROGERS: Exactly. The fire department does those, works on those during a fire. A lot of them existed already; but quickly, in a fire emergency, they get out there and they start regrading those and modifying them.
CUNO: Yeah. What is a fireman’s first reaction when they come to a fire like this, a brushfire like this one?
ROGERS: Well, they immediately look at structure protection and life safety. Those are really the main things that they’re focused on quickly.
CUNO: And how do they focus on that?
ROGERS: Well, they immediately look at where buildings are and where people live, where people occupy areas. And those are the areas that they immediately protect.
CUNO: Bob, tell us about how the firemen house themselves here at the Getty site.
COMBS: We had a lot of the fire personnel onsite here throughout the entire incident. And we offered a number of spaces throughout the Getty. We have large areas, large conference rooms that we offered as sleeping areas. We also had, you know, showers and some food stations set up. And we would have strike teams come here, who had been out fighting the fire for, in some cases, twenty-four to thirty hours straight. Just come in dead-dog tired. Came in wide-eyed. Kinda, “What is this place?,” not knowing what we did here.
And we would help them get to a shower where they could take a quick shower, get a bite to eat, and either sleep in a conference room—we had cots set up. But in many cases, they’d prefer to just sleep right next to their engines.
The Arrival Plaza that we’re on now was literally just stocked up with all sorts of apparatus from all different agencies. There were green engines from the Forestry Service and yellow engines from other counties completely out of Los Angeles. And it was just incredible, the way they all pulled together.
But we would literally have little lumps all the way along the walls here, that were firefighters sleeping, bedded down. They had brought sleeping gear, and they would sleep close to their engines so they could still respond if they had to.
CUNO: What about the helicopters and the airplanes that were spreading water over the fire?
COMBS: There was a constant drumbeat of air units, airships, helicopters, you would see and hear coming over. You could literally stand on top of the hill here where we are and see water-dropping helicopters. The fire department also had spotters here, who were just literally using our height as an advantage, to be able to spot activity.
CUNO: Was there any chance that the fire could’ve landed on the building.
COMBS: Embers were floating. So you could see embers around. And so you know, that’s always a possibility. And that’s one of the reasons why we had spotters out looking for possible ember land— landing embers.
CUNO: Yeah. So what about if one of those embers landed on one of our buildings?
ROGERS: It’s highly unlikely that an ember would ignite anything. These are, again, fire-resistive buildings of concrete, stone, really resistive materials. Just doesn’t have the ability to start a fire.
CUNO: Steve, what about the works of art that are out in the open around here at the Getty Center? Were they at risk at all?
COMBS: Well, the Stark Collection is a collection of sculptures located in different areas of the Getty Center. And they also are made of fire-resistant materials. Perhaps not by design. But obviously, we covered them where we could. Some are too large to do that. But we kept an eye on everything, and we would’ve taken action if we had thought that embers were presenting a threat to any of those works.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, what is the first step now, dealing with a post-fire and sort of the remediation that has to take place?
COMBS: Well, Jim, within twenty-fours of lifting the evacuation order on us, I had a team of consultants, contractors that specialize in post-fire mitigation. They’re very skilled in analyzing things like debris flow. You know, when there’s a rainstorm. And they’ve been working for the last few weeks, in preparation for winter rains. And it’s really been a major, major priority, as we work through it.
CUNO: I know our neighbors were at risk and Mount Saint Mary’s College had to close and people in the houses were evacuated nearby. How did we work with them and communicate with them?
COMBS: Well, we’ve been in having conversations with our neighbors. We’ve had some feedback from our neighbors, and they’re very pleased at our brush clearance procedures and policies and all the good work we’ve been doing over many years.
CUNO: In looking at the Getty Center, we see the big advertisement for the Manet exhibition that is on right now. Was there any concern, Lisa, by the lenders to the exhibition, about the fire and how it put at risk their collections?
LAPIN: We have lenders to that exhibition from around the world, including Japan and France. And of course, they were seeing news reports that made the situation look quite dire. So the first thing that the Getty Museum does is call all of its lenders personally and reassure them that their loans are safe and that the art is well protected and well cared for inside of our buildings, including protected even from smoke.
They were kept apprised through the fire situation and with updates from the museum team to those lenders. And the lenders were very, very grateful for those many updates.
CUNO: How long was the Getty closed, and when did it reopen?
LAPIN: The Center was closed from Monday through Friday. And we reopened on Saturday, the weekend after the fire. That’s when we were assured that the area was safe. That’s also when all of the road closures were lifted and visitors could actually return.
CUNO: Okay, let’s go out and look at the site.
Okay, we’re in a van, heading out onto the burned land that surrounds the Getty Center. Mike, tell us where we’re going and what we’re gonna see.
ROGERS: So Jim, we’re leaving the top of the hill parking near the plaza area of the Getty Center. We’re going north, and we’re going to be heading onto one of our emergency access roads here. It’s commonly known as Chalon. It—
CUNO: It’s a road that the visitor doesn’t normally see.
ROGERS: We’re approximately a half a mile north of the plaza level of the Getty Center. So this is a road where our first responders, emergency crews come in to help protect us. And you will see some of the burn damage in this area, and then also a lot of the debris mitigation measures we’re already placed in a short time here.
CUNO: Yeah, you can see the burned bits of scarred landscape just right ahead of us.
So we’re passing through the gate, onto the Chalon Road, which is neighboring road that connects the Getty Center with some housing in the area. And there’s a sort of a bridge that we’re crossing just now that looks like it’s been in danger. Mike, describe the setting for us.
ROGERS: So we’re on the service road here, the emergency access. On our right is K-Rail which is concrete barriers that are on the area here where the hill is—
CUNO: And what will they do?
ROGERS: These are to stop any debris that could roll down the hill. You know, burnt material, rocks, gravel, things like that. On top of that, Jim, you can see that there’s a debris fence that’s been attached to a series of poles here. That gives the debris structure and system more capacity to catch debris if it rolls down.
CUNO: How easy is it to get the debris out of here?
ROGERS: What they do is they pull up with a very large tractor, reach over the fence, and then load it into a dump truck. So if there is a debris flow with any kinda rainstorm.
CUNO: We should say that the fence is about, oh, seven or eight feet tall, I suppose.
ROGERS: Yes, it’s eight feet tall.
CUNO: So to reach over the side of it, you’ve got to have a mechanical arm of some kind to do that, huh?
ROGERS: Yeah, it’s a very large excavator that reaches over. It’s specifically designed to remove debris behind a barrier.
CUNO: I guess the biggest concern right now is rain, and extensive rain. We have had some light rain. But what’s the forecast for rain?
ROGERS: Well, there is some rain forecast in the near future, probably about an inch. And these are the kinds of things that we’re concerned about, that we wanna put measures in to help the Getty and the community.
CUNO: How long will it take, do you think, to get the mitigation in place?
ROGERS: Well, this area here is done. This is ready for rains right now. This 1500 feet of work was done very quickly. So now over the next few weeks, we’re putting in very large debris nets down in these canyons so that if anything comes down the canyons, down in these areas, it’ll get caught behind the nets.
CUNO: I guess we have to coordinate all of this with the actions taken by the residents that are just on down the hill from us.
ROGERS: We’re coordinating it with government and community.
CUNO: What about the wildlife? How was it affected by the fire?
ROGERS: Well, we’ve seen a lotta deer on this site. The deer seem to have moved into other areas that are unburnt. We have seen one mountain lion during this time, has come for a visit and then departed. So things look well on the wildlife side.
So Jim, you can see there’s some burn area here on the—
CUNO: Yeah, describe the burn area, ’cause it’s quite shocking.
ROGERS: Yeah. In areas, it’s completely denuded. There’s certain areas you’ll see it looks like a desert scene with nothing on it. Other areas where we did significant brush clearance and fuel reduction, it slowed the fire down; it didn’t burn as heavily or extensively. And that’s really— that’s a good thing.
CUNO: [over Rogers] It’s quite amazing. I mean, it’s just— The road is about ten or fifteen feet across, and it’s green on one side and the shrubbery is thriving. On the other side, it is, as you say, like a desert.
ROGERS: Right. So you’re coming up on the access road here, where it enters into the community. And Jim, in front of you, you can see Mount Saint Mary’s College above us.
CUNO: Yeah, and you can see the fire went right up onto the building.
ROGERS: Yep. Went right up the building. They’ve had some damage to their building, some broken windows and things like that.
CUNO: So Bob, we just came through a gate, which is normally closed, that separates the Getty property from neighboring properties. It’s open now, obviously, for the equipment that’s brought out to help with the remediation.
COMBS: Right. So we have a number of gates that are not normally used by visitors or staff. They’re really there just for emergency access by emergency responding units. And this gate that we’re at, one of our strategies, as soon as we have a fire break out, is we dispatch staff there. And it’s a key initiative; we have to get those gates open, unlocked, ready to receive fire responding personnel. And those remained open throughout the fire. We also have intercoms. And the fire department actually has a way they can open those independently, but we try to get that done for ’em, to speed their access on and off the site.
CUNO: Yeah. So Mike, describe what’s going on, the work that’s going on just beyond the gateway, where we’re entered onto the site.
ROGERS: Okay, Jim. We’re standing right here in a canyon that drains probably three-quarters of a mile back. I know this area drains approximately sixty acres of the neighborhood right in this area here. So what you’re seeing right now is, you’re seeing a piece of equipment that is drilling into the hill, putting anchors in, about twenty-five feet deep into the hillside. And what you’re seeing with this big red string that’s spanning the canyon is where a debris is gonna be constructed here.
CUNO: So how far across is that, do you think?
ROGERS: Well, that’s probably 125, 150 feet. It’s a very significant span.
CUNO: And it’s about fifteen, twenty feet high?
ROGERS: Fifteen to twenty feet high. So Jim, in this area, in order to help protect the community from any debris flow, we’re gonna be putting five of these in this canyon here.
CUNO: Going back?
ROGERS: Going back. They’ll be staggered. So their job is to catch debris. When I talk about debris, look what’s above us. There’s dead trees and rocks and all kinds of things that could fall in here and block up water. So that’s what we wanna do is catch all this stuff, so it doesn’t flow off of the property.
CUNO: And the water would flow down into a grate?
ROGERS: It flows into a drainpipe and then onto the street. That’s the way this is designed in this area.
CUNO: And it then takes the water out?
ROGERS: Takes the water out. That’s the city’s storm system.
CUNO: How long will it take to get this all done, do you think?
ROGERS: Well, we’ll in sort of a four- to five-week period right now of significant work that’s happening.
CUNO: Lisa, how are we communicating with the local public about what’s going on here at the site?
LAPIN: We’re going to be meeting personally with members of the immediate neighborhood. And there have been some community meetings called with different neighborhood associations. And we’ll be participating in those meetings, to inform all of our all of our neighbors as to the activity and our plans for the mitigation.
CUNO: Steve, what’s the long-term perspective on this?
OLSEN: Well, these areas will present some hazard for debris flows for several years. And we’ll continue to evaluate the extent to which debris comes down these canyons. It’ll be removed. And then at some point, these barriers will be removed, and we’ll keep the pylons in place in case we have future events. But I think we all have to accept that wildfire is an ongoing and permanent feature of life in Southern California. And this is where we are, and so we will have to be prepared to continue to be watchful.
CUNO: I know this is the second time that we’ve had fire that has caused evacuation of the Getty Center, in my eight years here at the Getty. And I think there was one just before that, as well. So let’s say there’s been three times in nine years or so. That’s just a pattern we’re gonna have to accept, I guess, huh?
OLSEN: It is the new normal. And it has been for a long time. There was a very destructive fire that swept through this area in 1961. And so it’s been going on for a long time, and it’s what we have to prepare for.
CUNO: I can see from where we’re standing, a sign that the neighbors have put up on a bush over here that says, “LAFD, fire department, LAPD, police department, and all other emergency services and supporting teams, words can’t express our gratitude to all who saved our homes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” How did we express our gratitude to the first responders?
COMBS: Well, a number of ways. We provided some support by housing a lot of the firefighters and providing some food and some ability to refresh between their shifts out on the fire. We also provided a couple of hamburger trucks. We fed about 1400 firefighters and emergency response personnel out at the unified command post one evening. It was one small way that we could contribute to the effort.
LAPIN: We also placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times. There were so many agencies that came to assist in this fire, we wanted to make sure everybody knew that we were very, very grateful for all of their work. It was truly heroic, watching them in action throughout the fire. The helicopter drops, the airplane drops, the hand crews that went up into the canyons to create firebreaks and barriers. It was a really impressive operation. So we did publicly thank them.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, I wanna thank all of you for the time on the podcast, and than you even more for all the work you do to keep the collections of Getty safe and keep the people who come to the Getty safe and confident in our management of these resources. So thank you all very much.
COMBS: And thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
BOB COMBS: You’re anxious. The adrenaline starts pumping. And it was clear it was very serious. ...

Music Credits

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »