As wildfire rages, LA's 'fire proof' Getty Museum sees no risk to art

(Reuters) - When a fast-moving wildfire licked up to the fringes of the sprawling Getty Center complex on Tuesday, the staff of the Los Angeles museum betrayed no sign of panic, confident that its priceless art was safe and secure within its walls.

FILE PHOTO: The Getty Fire burns near the Getty Center along the 405 freeway north of Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/ Gene Blevins/File Photo

Mindful of Southern California’s vulnerability to fires and earthquakes, architect Richard Meier designed the $1.3 billion center with an array of special features to protect a collection that includes paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Manet, ancient Greek statues and an expansive array of manuscripts.

Built in 1997 on a hilltop in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, about 13 miles (21 km) west of downtown, the center describes itself on its website as a “marvel of anti-fire engineering.”

“The buildings are impervious to fire from the outside and they’re constructed to be basically fire proof,” said Lisa Lapin, spokeswoman for the Getty Trust, as a firefighting helicopter flew overhead.

“Evacuating the art would put it at greater danger. There’s no need to move it, it’s very, very safe,” she said.

Buildings on the center’s campus, which house the J. Paul Getty Museum and other Getty Trust programs, are clad in stone and steel with stone rooftops that keep burning embers from igniting the structures.

The museum’s galleries are double-walled and compartmentalized to prevent an interior fire spreading. They have systems that can recycle air to stop smoke and ash entering and remove oxygen from the air to extinguish any flames inside.

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Since Monday, a million-gallon water tank has allowed museum staff to irrigate grounds that act as a fire buffer zone around buildings, Lapin said by phone from the center.

The so-called Getty Fire had burned 656 acres (265 hectares) as of Tuesday afternoon, destroying eight homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents, including celebrities such as NBA star LeBron James and actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The flames have come within three quarters of a mile (1.2 km) of the Getty Center’s office buildings, and a mile (1.6 km) from structures housing art, burning in a wildland area of the more than 600-acre complex, Lapin said.

Firefighters are using the center as a rest area, eating at its café, and using it as a vantage point from which to manage their air attack, Lapin added.

“Although we’ve extinguished all visible flames, we have countless smoldering hotspots and we have another severe wind event forecasted late tonight through Thursday,” Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Margaret Stewart said.

Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Berkrot