A Portrait of Fire Prevention
It seems counterintuitive that the safest place for a priceless art collection would be inside a museum surrounded by wildfire. But with the proper precautions in place, it’s true. Just ask the staff at the Getty Museum, which made the decision in October 2019 to keep its collection in place as a major wildfire broke out in the California region near the museum.
“There is no need to evacuate the art or archives, because they are already in the safest place possible: the Getty Center itself,” the museum wrote in a blog post. “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.”
The fire—dubbed the Getty Fire because it originated near the Getty Center Drive exit off the 405 Freeway—initiated neighborhood evacuations and burned 745 acres. More than 1,100 firefighters were on the scene, and the Getty Center closed its facilities and canceled all activities for a week until the fire was under control.
“The Getty Center is well protected from fire due to its construction and architecture, with our 1.5 million feet of travertine stone walls and floors, cement and steel construction, and stone on rooftops that prevents wind-blown embers from igniting,” the Getty explained. “Additional fire-prevention measures include water storage on-site to provide for grounds irrigation. We deployed irrigation throughout the grounds immediately Monday morning. Also, immediately, we sealed off museum galleries and the library archives from smoke by state-of-the-art systems. The double-walled construction of the galleries, which are literally buildings unto themselves within the bigger building, also provided significant protection for the collections.”
The museum, owned by the J. Paul Getty Trust, contains more than 125,000 objects on display and in its archives. It was built to overlook the city of Los Angeles—an area prone to wildfires, necessitating extensive fire prevention measures to protect visitors, staff, and the museum’s irreplaceable collection itself.
The Getty Museum was built as a bunker to defend artifacts and collections in place—even with a wildfire bearing down on it.
“How do you protect your building from a fire on the outside? Things like a sprinkler aren’t designed to protect a building from being overrun by a wildfire. That gets into vegetation control and construction of the building itself,” says Greg Harrington, principal fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “The Getty Museum was built as a bunker to defend artifacts and collections in place—even with a wildfire bearing down on it.”
The risk of wildfire is a growing concern, increasingly so in the United States where the number of acres burned each year—on average—continues to rise.
“Over the past 10 years (2011-2020), there were an average of 62,693 wildfires annual and an average of 7.5 million acres impacted annually,” according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. “In 2020, over 58,250 wildfires burned 10.3 million acres, the most acreage impacted in a year; nearly 40 percent of these acres were in California.”
Between 2012 and 2016, the NFPA found an annual average of more than 1,900 fires at cultural resource properties that resulted in property damage of almost $93 million per year; 66 museum and art gallery fires were reported per year on average. But often fire damage at a cultural property comes with an immeasurable loss because of historical and community value.
This was the case when the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro caught fire in 2018. The museum was a 200-year-old building that lacked many modern fire prevention methods, so when a blaze broke out it resulted in a tragic loss—destroying almost the entire collection of 20 million items.
Then Brazilian President Michel Temer tweeted that the loss of the museum’s collection was “incalculable,” adding that “today is a tragic day for the museology of our country. Two hundred years of work research and knowledge were lost.”
To help guide museums and cultural institutions in the United States, the NFPA has a Technical Committee on Cultural Resources—which Harrington is the staff liaison for—and has two specific fire codes: 909 Code for the Protection of Cultural Resource Properties—Museums, Libraries, and Places of Worship, and 914 Code for the Protection of Historic Structures.
NFPA 909 was updated in the beginning of 2021 as part of the NFPA’s four-year revision schedule process. The code contains a comprehensive framework for museum operators and owners to implement in their facilities, including recommendations that do not require a great deal of financial resources, Harrington adds.
The more that a fire protection strategy relies on human intervention, the more likely you’re going to have failure.
“For instance, having formalized plans—planning doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he says. The 909 code also recommends conducting a risk analysis, identifying vulnerabilities including wildfire, and determining what loss tolerance the facility has.
For instance, this process could find that while one portion of the building contains valuable artwork but another section’s collection is irreplaceable or extremely high-value, giving museum operators insight on which areas and efforts to prioritize, Harrington adds.
Other risk areas identified in the NFPA codes are construction, demolition, and restoration projects.
“Whenever they’re doing any kind of construction work in museums or historic buildings, that’s one of the leading causes of losses with regards to fire,” Harrington says, especially if “hot work” like welding or cutting is taking place.
“It boils down to awareness. Anyone doing torch cutting in the facility needs to be aware that that’s a significant potential fire source,” Harrington explains. “One of the practices [code 909] required is that when you’re conducting hot work operations, someone needs to stick around for a period of time to ensure that any sparks or hot pieces of metal don’t cause a fire in the area. It’s not just a matter of shutting down your torches and going home at night because that’s when you have problems.”
The NFPA codes also require that someone be designated a fire safety manager at the cultural property. This means that someone is accountable for ensuring fire systems are maintained, that the alarm systems function, and that combustible materials are controlled.
A control that can be costly but has proven highly effective is the use of a sprinkler system. These systems can issue a small amount of water to put out a fire before it’s able to spread and reduce the need for a fire department response—which could result in major water damage to the facility and the collection.
“NFPA statistics indicate that for structure fires in buildings equipped with wet pipe sprinkler systems where sprinklers operated, 90 percent were controlled or extinguished with one sprinkler operating,” according to the updated 909 code.
A devastating example of how a fire can spread, quickly, when a sprinkler system is not in place is the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, in 2018. The cathedral did not have a sprinkler system or fire-resistant walls in place, so when a fire broke out in the attic of the cathedral it spread through the dried 12th and 13th century wooden beams. A delayed human notification to the fire brigade further complicated the response at Notre Dame and allowed the fire to grow, Harrington says. Analysis by The New York Times found that after the initial fire alarm went off, a security officer sent to investigate went to the wrong location—where there was no fire. The miscommunication resulted in a 30-minute delay between the alarm and confirmation to begin a fire response.
“If the staff had performed like they were supposed to, there would have been a much earlier notification and perhaps the fire brigade would have been able to intervene in time to save the roof,” Harrington adds.
This is why the NFPA recommends using systems that send automatic alerts without human intervention.
“The more that a fire protection strategy relies on human intervention, the more likely you’re going to have failure,” Harrington says. “The more we can rely on automatic systems, detection systems, alarm systems, the better because they don’t depend on a person taking an independent action.”