Fast-Spreading Fire Damages Famed Warner Movie Studios

Fast-Spreading Fire Damages Famed Warner Movie Studios

THE problem of fighting fires in motion picture studio “sets” and properties is one geographically peculiar to the Southern California area of the United States.

The vast motion picture lots in the Hollywood area provide a highly combustible setting for fast-spreading fires. Motion picture sets, built to simulate actual street blocks and scenes, are not required to follow building code laws. Sets are constructed and broken down and moved around the lot so frequently that no system for regulating them for fire control has so far been established.

Flimsy and highly combustible film properties are necessary for ease of handling, which results in construction of the sets of light material, usually lumber.

Studio buildings used in movie making appear from the outside to be of concrete or brick construction. In reality they are made of plaster and lumber. Inside the sets, which are actually mammoth shacks, are large open areas with frequent unprotected openings, such as windows and doors which permits rapid spread of fire.

Moreover, the inside area of makebelieve buildings is frequently used to store costumes and other flammable paraphernalia which goes into the making of movies. Inside construction of the set buildings generally is of lumber extending across the sets and also allowing a ready avenue for fire.

One of the main problems in studio fires of the magnitude recently confronting Burbank, Calif., firemen is the danger of rapid spread. The problem of the area already involved is somewhat secondary inasmuch as there is little hope of saving it once it ignites. The problem is one of containment against almost unbelievable swiftness of fire spread.

View of Sound Stage 21 as it collapsed. Notice the bubbling broken sprinkler riser at left center. Warner Brothers master film storage vault is at the extreme left of the picture. The building was fully sprinklered but firemen feared for a time that the fire might spread to it.

Los Angeles F. D. Photo

Note the flimsy construction of the blazing studio set. From the outside of the building it would appear that construction was of stone and brick. In reality, construction was of wood lath and two by four supports with a thin coating of plaster, or stucco, over it.

Los Angeles F. D. Photo

Unlike conventional building construction, there are no rooms in these sets to contain or hold fire. The amount of unobstructed fire area is so large that the opportunity for a fast-spreading fire is great. Moreover, there are no fire walls to retain fire as there usually are in conventional structures.

The tremendous amount of heat generated from a studio fire, once it gets a good hold, presents a threat by radiation to other closely packed buildings in the studio lots.

Assistant Fire Chief Mack Darnaby of the Burbank, Calif., Fire Department, aptly summed up the problem by saying: “Probably no hazard in the fire service affords a greater area of exposure to the rapid spread of fire than motion picture studio lots.”

Tinder-like construction of lots in Hollywood’s never-never land calls for a faster sizeup of the fire and calls for more equipment in the early stages of the fire than almost any other type of blaze confronting today’s fire departments.

All the forces of modern fire-fighting must be close at hand during the early stages of the movie studio fire to cut off the spread of the fire to other areas of the sprawling motion picture studios.

A quick knockdown of a motion picture lot fire, the one and only way of winning the battle at such odds against the firemen, depends upon immediate call for additional manpower and apparatus. Also needed is equipment with portable and mounted deluge sets, immediate operation of mutual aid plans and intelligent use of fire radio facilities. Speed and fire department heavy artillery go hand-in-hand at such fires.

The life hazard at motion picture studio fires is relatively low. The studio buildings have large doors and other exits to permit handling of large and bulky film-making equipment to be moved about the lots.

Almost all the tools of modern fire fighting were brought into operation May 16, 1952, when a rapidly spreading fire was discovered in the gigantic back lot of Warner Brother’s 40 acre studio at 4000 West Olive Street in Burbank. The city is only a short distance northeast of Hollywood, the film capital of the world.

The fire apparently started from an undiscovered cause near a drapery storage building, also used as a movie set near Sound Stage 21, reportedly Hollywood’s largest sound stage. Before the fire was brought under control, the drapery storage building and Sound Stage 21 were destroyed and three other outside movie sets were heavily damaged. The drapery storage building was located next to the south end of Stage 21.

Sound Stage 21 was 300 feet long and 120 feet wide. There was a 65-foot clearance from the rafters to the ground. The stage was the only fully sprinklered building of those involved. The others were partly sprinklered, or had no sprinklers. The building had a wood truss roof. Along the ceiling was a 2-inch thick layer of rock wool, which was used for sound-proofing. It lay as a blanket against the wood roof.

There were two 8-inch sprinkler risers going up the outside of the building. One of the peculiarities of the fire, according to Burbank Fire Department officials, was that the sprinklers did not work properly. There apparently was some water going through the. sprinkler system but not enough to control the fire when it communicated to Sound Stage 21.

The American District Telegraph Company registered a closed gate valve at 12:45 p.m., which was twelve minutes after the first alarm of fire. Fire officials said the sprinkler system would have contained the fire to Stage 21 and checked it in the fire’s incipient stages if the system had been functioning properly.

The sprinkler piping inside the ruins was being pulled apart to determine whether some obstruction in the sprinkler system might have retarded its operation.

Studio 21 actually was a roofed-over tank, and housed what is known in Hollywood as a roofed ocean. The entire floor area of Studio 21 could be filled with water to a depth of 30 inches (to nine feet in the center section). All of Warner Brother’s sea scenes were filmed in this stage which was only 15 years old. Its walls were of reinforced concrete.

The stage was built in 1937 for the movie, “Seahawk,” which starred Errol Flynn. Humphrey Bogart “killed” a whole boat crew, including Edward G. Robinson in the movie, “Key Largo,” in this studio. Many dry surface scenes also were shot in Sound Stage 21.

The film, “The Iron Mistress” was being shot in the studio only two days before the fire. Just before the fire was discovered, Actress Kathryn Grayson and Actor Gordon Macrae had finished rehearsals prior to shooting “The Desert Song.”

During the fire, the south end of Stage 21 collapsed and ruptured one of the eight-inch risers, the breakage of which caused a serious drop in water pressure. The broken sprinkler was shut off by operating a post indicator valve. The rapid bubbling of water from the broken sprinkler indicated the line feeding the sprinkler was charged and operating.

The blaze reportedly started along the studio’s New York Street, where the set housing draperies was located. The 15-mile-pcr-hour breeze, blowing almost directly north from the San Fernando Valley, ignited other New York Street sets constructed of wooden false fronts. The breeze swept the fire into Brownstone Street, used for tenement house scenes and from there spread to sets used for foreign street scenes.

The fire entered Sound Stage 21 through ventilator openings at the southwest corner of the building. Flame traveled upwards to the Sound Stage ceiling and then spread horizontally across the 65-foot-high roof. Only high pressure deluge equipment could reach the flames.

During the intense fire, explosions punctured the roar of the flames. The explosions apparently came from air compressors which powered fans, wind machines and other movie-making equipment.

The fire was fought on a warm May afternoon. Fortunately the breeze was blowing the fire away from the main part of the congested studio, else firemen say a greater area would have been involved before the flames were checked. The fire razed the equivalent of two city blocks.

The loss was believed covered by at least 61 different insurance companies. Estimates of damage ranged from $175,000 to $1,250,000.

The fire alarm office in Burbank’s City Hall Building received an American District Telegraph Company signal from Box 34, Stage 3, at Warner Brothers at 12:32 p.m. All boxes on the studio property are ADT operated. Burbank dispatchers sent Engine 2, a 750-gallon American LaFranee pumper, Hose 5, a Mack hose wagon with no pump and Rescue 4.

Notification of the fire department probably was delayed some minutes inasmuch as the studio employees were on their lunch hour. The fire had gained a good headway before discovery.

Proof of this seems to come from the fact that Engine 2, on pulling out of their quarters one mile away from the fire scene, reported over the Burbank fire and police radio station, KMA-345, that they were on the air and responding. Immediately thereafter they radioed that they could see lots of fire and black smoke looming up from the direction of Warner Brothers. Engine 2 requested all possible available aid while still responding.

Also on his lunch hour was Assistant Chief Darnaby. He overheard Engine 2’s radio report over the receiver in his car and immediately headed for Warner brothers.

From the first, then, the use of radio not only expedited the call for additional men and equipment but gave a top officer of the Burbank Fire Department a good indication of the headstart the fire already had.

Some idea of the tremendous heat generated by the fire is shown from this fully involved studio prop. Intense flame of rapidly spreading fire drives these studio workmen back. Note the construction of the studio set. What appears to be fireproof brick construction is actually a highly flammable material. Note amount of open inside area of this set gives fire plenty of opportunity to spread.

The fire alarm office dispatched an additional engine and hose wagon in compliance with Engine 2’s request. Additional ADT boxes were received as well as numerous telephone calls reporting the fire. A total of six boxes were pulled for the fire.

It was immediately obvious that more help than already was in Burbank would be needed. The mutual aid program with nearby Glendale was put into effect. Glendale dispatched two engines to Burbank. One of the engines patrolled the area around the fire and helped extinguish fires started on wood rooftops of residences surrounding Warner Brothers’ Studios. The other engine from Glendale was located in Burbank’s Station 1. There were no other outbreaks of fire during the Warners fire.

Additional help was requested from the Los Angeles County Fire Department and from the Los Angeles City Fire Department. Under the exisiting mutual aid setup, the larger fire departments, such as the city and county fire departments in the Los Angeles area, unhesitatingly give whatever aid is asked, providing the help is requested by a top officer of the fire department in whose jurisdiction there is a fire requiring outside help.

Two engines and a truck were sent by Los Angeles City Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatched a 750 gallon pumper from its station in Universal City.

Off-Shift Recalled

The Burbank Fire Alarm Office also began recalling the off-duty shift. The Burbank department has 70 men, 26 of whom were on duty when the fire started. Dispatchers were able to reach 21 off duty firemen who went to the scene. Studio workmen also manned hose lines and helped firemen battle the towering flames.

Burbank Fire Chief William Taylor responded as soon as he heard of the fire and took control of operations. Other Burbank chiefs at the fire were Battalion Chiefs Fred Olchvary and Wayne Morgan.

Aerial view of the large area involved at the Warner Brothers Studio fire. Note the sound stages in the lower left foreground. The mammoth Sound Stage 21 was similar in construction to these smaller stages. This air shot gives some idea of the tightly packed studio area and the problem of protecting exposures.

Warner Brothers has a fire department of its own, including a 1000-gallon American LaFrance pumper. Spotted around the studio lot are hose reels and fire hydrants. Several thousand feet of hose from the studio’s fire department had been laid and was in operation by the time the Burbank department arrived. The fire, however, was far beyond possible control by studio fire equipment and manpower.

Two hydrants nearest the point where the fire is believed to have started were too hot to approach to make a hookup. Hydrants further away had to be used. Firemen had all the water they wanted. Water came from three 8-inch mains tied together in a loop and two 6-inch mains. Another 12-inch main came into the studio from Rowland Street and another 12-inch came in from Olive Street, on which side the studio faced. Static pressure on hydrants on the studio lot is about 180 pounds.

High pressure equipment was quickly brought into play. Burbank’s Hose 2 and Hose 4 operated mounted deluge sets, and a portable deluge set belonging to the Los Angeles City Fire Department also was put in action.

The Burbank department laid 50 feet of 1-inch hose; 1,250 feet of l 1/2-inch hose and 5,200 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose. Burbank also raised a total of 103 feet of ladders. Greatest length of pumping time was done by Burbank’s Engine 2, with 9 hours. Burbank’s Engine 3 pumped 7 1/2 hours.

Several miles away at the time was Battalion Chief Lynn W. Nelson of the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s 14th battalion. Chief Nelson was out in his district and traveling between two of his fire stations when he noticed a tremendous loomup.

Using the radio in his car, he asked his fire board at Van Nuys Engine 39 if they had received a call for a fire in that area. Van Nuys radioed back, “No.” Chief Nelson then drove toward the fire and upon his arrival at Warner Brothers found the studio properties heavily involved.

Chief Nelson contacted Assistant Chief Darnaby and asked if he needed Los Angeles City Fire Department assistance. Chief Darnaby asked for aid and Chief Nelson radioed Van Nuys a request for two engines and a truck. Normally a request for assistance received by the Los Angeles City Fire Department from the many communities bordering the city calls for a first assignment dispatch of one engine and a chief officer.

Van Nuys contacted the Central Alarm Office at Westlake and Westlake obtained immediate approval from Assistant Chief Frank Winkler at Fire Department Headquarters. Van Nuys then dispatched Engine 60, a 1250-gallon Peter Pirsch triple combination pumper, and Truck 60, an 85-foot Seagrave aerial. Westlake dispatched Engine 76, also a 1250-gallon Peter Pirsch pumper.

While Los Angeles City Fire Department equipment was responding, Chief Nelson sized up the fire and decided the key point to cut off the rapidly spreading fire was at three large sets facing on the studio’s Brownstone Street, immediately to the west of the main fire now in Sound Stage 21.

Fronts of the three plaster, stucco and wood buildings already had ignited from radiation. Chief Nelson said one of the buildings was exceptionally large and if fire was not soon cut off in it there would be a second major fire in addition to the inferno in Sound Stage 21.

Engine 76 was the nearest Los Angeles City Fire Department to the Warner Brothers Studio and Chief Nelson gave it directions by three-way radio in his car. While Engine 76 was en route, it received the radioed directions from Chief Nelson to enter Warner’s main gate and come down the Main Street of the studios. Then Engine 76 was to lay a 2 1/2-inch line into the largest building, the one in the center of the three ignited by radiation.

Engine 76 arrived and took their line through tremendous heat on Brownstone Street, paralleling the main fire, and worked their stream onto the fire as it extended into the building. Engine 76 laid from the hydrant. Burbank previously had laid a line from the same hydrant into a small manifold wagon. Chief Nelson ordered Engine 76 to lay a second line into Burbank’s manifold wagon. Up until then, pressure at the manifold had been inadequate to properly operate from it. This problem was corrected when Engine 76 began pumping from the hydrant directly into the manifold.

Chief Nelson also took command of several lines being operated by studio employees and ordered these lines inside the three Brownstone Street buildings. Chief Nelson directed a total of seven 2 1/2-inch lines ‘which were used inside the three buildings.

Upon Truck 60’s arrival. Chief Nelson ordered the truck’s portable deluge set placed in position inside the door at the south end of the flaming Sound Stage 21. It was hoped that fire could be cut off from this point. But the fire had gained too much headway and there was too much area involved for only one deluge set to handle adequately.

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Studio Fire

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The portable deluge set. with a 1 3/4 inch tip, must be supplied with three 2 1/2-inch lines for proper operation. However, only two 2 1/2-inch lines were available at first and some time later a third line was hooked into it. At the north end of Sound Stage 21 was a huge set, apparently the one intended for “The Iron Mistress.” plus a tremendous number of valuable arc lights. This entire area was later fully involved. The sound stage equipment included many arc lights, valued at from $1,000 to $1,500 apiece, plus camera equipment valued at from $5,000 to $55,000 for color cameras.

The spreading fire caused Truck 60’s men to move from the Sound Stage and take up a position outside. The south end of the Stage buckled shortly thereafter. The portable deluge was operated into the Sound Stage and later was used to protect the many exposures with a water curtain.

After the wall buckled, Burbank’s two hose wagons operated mounted deluge sets into the ruins to wet down. Chief Nelson said additional portable deluge sets would have been useful at the attack point on the south end of Sound Stage 21.

Engine 60, upon arrival, contacted one of the Burbank chiefs and was ordered to lay and operate two 2 1/2-inch lines on the east side of the fire. A large fourstory set building, just east of the main area of the fire, was heavily involved, and Engine 60 made a good stop in knocking the fire down, but not until one-half the building had been gutted.

The fire was brought under control in less than one hour after receipt of the first alarm.

A large residential area outside the studio was the target of many flaming firebrands. The firebrands started many fires but in only eight cases was fire department assistance required to extinguish them. All were roof fires and none caused major damage. Typical roof construction in small frame residences in Southern California is of wood shingles. Householders extinguished many other fires with garden hoses and prevented others by wetting down their wood shingled roofs.

Peculiar to motion picture set properties are great numbers of heavy steel wires and cables stretching across makebelieve streets in the Hollywood studios. For filming of night scenes during daylight hours, huge canopies are drawn across these wires and a nighttime effect is produced. Fortunately none of the canopies connected studio buildings at the time of the fire.

During overhauling operations it was noted that steel girders in Sound Stage 21 had twisted and warped like ribbons but wood timbers supporting parts of the building were standing, although deeply charred.

Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported to firemen or the many studio employees who manned lines. The studio’s dispensary reported it had treated 12 workmen who suffered slight burns as they dashed into Sound Stage 21 and the nearby sets in attempts to save valuable electrical and sound equipment.

Sound Stage 21 was located only a few feet away from Warner Brothers’ large film storage vault where master prints of the studio’s films are kept. The vault, constructed of 8 to 10 inch thick steel reinforced concrete walls, was sprinklered. The fire was kept from involving the building.

Fires in film storage containers and vaults are, of course, a major problem in this type of occupancy. Fortunately for the fire service, motion picture studios and other organizations dealing with highly flammable film have decreased this hazard in recent years through proper handling and storage.

The heavy black smoke from the fire attracted thousands of persons. The American Broadcasting Company’s Los Angeles television outlet went on the air with an on-the-spot account of the fire. Within an hour after the fire started, the station, WECA-TV, had a remote truck on the scene.

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good, however, and studio publicity men and cameramen made the best of the warm spring afternoon. Publicity men posed glamorous starnear firemen and with a backdrop of smoke and flame and begrimed firemen, snapped away for the benefit of movie fans across the country.

Studio cameramen trained their fastaction equipment on the fire and ground away as firemen battled the flames. One cameraman remarked, “We’ve got enough fire footage here to last us a lifetime!”

Warner Brothers was the site of a $500,000 fire in 1934, when 46 men were hurt, five seriously, as they battled a blaze at the studio. At the 1934 fire, the huge “Chinatown” set was burned to the ground.

Following is the log of alarms for the Warner Brothers Studio Fire, May 16, 1952:

Log of Alarms

12:32 p.m.—ADT Fire Alarm Box 34, Stage 3, Warner Brothers Studios. Engine 2, Hose 5. Rescue 4 and Assistant Chief Mack Darnaby.

12:33 p.m.—Engine 2. one mile away from fire scene, radioed en route via KMA-345 that much more help would be necessary because they could see lots of fire and black smoke.

12:33 p.m. ADT Fire Alarm Box 64. Cutting Room.

12:33 p.m.—Engine 1, Hose 4 dispatched.

12:34 p.m.—ADT Fire Alarm Box 42, Stage 1.

12:36 p.m.—ADT Fire Alarm Box 62, Administration Building.

12:40 p.m.—Engine 5 dispatched.

12:41 p.m.—ADT Fire Alarm Box 312. N.W.C., Stage 5, received.

12:43 p.m.—ADT registered a closed gate valve at Warner Brothers Studios.

12:45 p.m.—Engine 1-A dispatched.

12:45 p.m.—Glendale Fire Department notified as per mutual aid pact. Two Glendale engines dispatched. One located in Burbank Station 1. The other patrolled area around fire to fight incidental fires.

12:50 p.m.—Burbank Reserve 3, a tank unit, dispatched.

12:53 p.m.—Westlake Alarm Office of Los Angeles City Fire Department dispatched Engine 76. per request of Battalion Chief Lynn Nelson, 14th battalion.

12:53 p.m.—Van Nuys Alarm Office of Los Angeles City Fire Department dispatched Engine 60 and Truck 60. per request of Chief Nelson.

12:53 p.m.—Los Angeles County F’ire Board received request for one engine. Dispatched Engine 60.

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