A huge fire described as an “inferno” on Universal City’s lower backlot broke out before dawn today and destroyed several buildings, sets
and a sound stage and damaged a video vault, causing tens of millions of dollars worth of damage. “It looked like a bomb had exploded,” one Burbank city official exclaimed. Among the sets damaged were the New York City and New England streetscapes, and among the buildings one housing the King Kong exhibit and one sound stage. In the archives building next door, Universal employees were bringing out hundreds and hundreds of containers of video vault material hand to hand to save it from the flames. Universal Studios president/COO Ron Meyer appeared at a news conference this morning alongside fire department and city and county officials to clarify what was, and wasn’t, damaged or destroyed. Calling the fire fighters “real heroes” who arrived on the scene in record time while the flames were burning out of , Meyer said he wanted to “make clear” that the theme park was not affacted and would open at noon. What was damaged was the video library, he said. “But our main vault of motion picture negatives was not.” In terms of the videos, “nothing irreplaceable was lost. We have duplicates. Obviously there’s a lot of work to replicate what was lost, but it can be done,” Meyer explained. He also said no shows or movies were affected “at all.” by the fire. He noted that the TV series Ghost Whisperer uses 8 different locations and 2 were damaged but that it wouldn’t hamper the show. And he said only a commercial was shooting on the New York streetscape. “We were very lucky today. It’s a bad situation but it could have been worse,” he concluded. (Photos via KNBC, which is owned by NBC Universal.)
The blaze was first reported in a sound stage on the studio back lot at about 4:45 a.m., and about 400 local firefighters were helping Universal Studios’ own firefighters quench the fire. Several acres on the 230-acre back lot were burning at one point, creating a black cloud over the famed Hollywood Hills. Though the fire is contained, it is still raging. According to the fire departmnents, the flames “blew very fast” through the area of the New York street facades, then moved through Courthouse Square where Back To The Future was shot, then engulfed the King Kong building, totally destoying its inside. Hampering firefighter efforts was low water pressure. Then inside the video vault building was the thick black smoke billowing from all those plastic containers on fire. Salvage efforts involved moving “hundreds and hundreds” of videos out of that structure, while the building itself was drowned with water. Three firefighters received minor injuries, and another suffered heat exhaustion.
The cause of the blaze
is under investigation has been ruled an accident. But today’s inferno at Universal City is eerily similar to the burning of many of the same back lot areas destroyed by a disastrous blaze in 1990. In that fire, gale-force Santa Ana winds whipped flames through the New York streetscape, the set used for the film Spartacus, and most of the Courthouse Square facades. That damage was estimated at more than $50 million, and an elaborate reconstruction project took several years to rebuild the sets. The 1990 fire was officially ruled arson and reportedly deliberately set by a security guard with a cigarette lighter.