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.
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.”
What concerns me is all those textured travertine slabs. What protects them from being stained by smoke, ash, chlorine in the water, etc.? Are they coated with some type of stone sealer? When I was planning to have hard-scaping down around a pool area–on walls, not floor, I was told they could stain and weather poorly as a result of acid rain and pollutants in the area. I adore those slabs on the Getty buildings and I would hate to see them stained.
Seems that a bit of staining or discoloration would be welcome versus the destruction.
I LOVE this article. Thank you for sharing!
The Getty is the place to be!
Thanks for this blog post; it gives a great visual understanding to the reader that the Getty is well protected.
Thank you to Mike Rogers and the entire team. This is a great example for all of us. Beyond resiliency.
Have never had the opportunity to visit The Getty but will, my next trip to California. This article is most informative as I read about the Getty fire.
Praying for the safety of all California residents, firefighters, and wildlife, involved in this horrific situation.
These fires are not normal. Winds can carry burning material a far distance and the tornado effects are way beyond what fires have been predicted in the past. There is no way to completely be safe here. There is always a worry, I would say. Sprinklers and the protection explained at the center are no match to the horrors of nature. No one can really knows.
Outstanding Getty! Was worried about you. One of the most impactful experiences of my art life during a visit some years ago. Well done on the proper investments in design and planning! Staying tuned for a future visit. Consoled.
I am so sorry for those affected by yet another fire ravaging California, and relieved to learn everything and all at the Getty are safe.
Please inform me when it is safe to travel to the Getty
Hi Dora, The Getty Center and Getty Villa both reopened on Saturday, November 2. Both sites are safe. Roads around both sites are also reopened, so travel to and from is safe and convenient. Hope you are able to visit!