Vegetation Fire and Cultural Heritage Buildings: the Paul Getty Museum Case Study

 

On December 5th, 2017, a large bush fire in California has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings. According the media no injuries or structural damage have been reported, although the museum has been threatened and closed to the public on Wednesday 5th.

Flames endangers the I 405 by the Getty Center on Dec. 5th – Credits: Melissa Castro

An important aspect of the fire that obliged Authorities to close the freeway through the Sepulveda Pass, is related to fire safety of art collections and museums in general in case of vegetation or forest fire. The Getty Center has been closed for one day because of wildfires burning across the 405 Freeway. According media  “officials say the flames pose no immediate danger to the museum’s art”.

At 07:11 – 6 dic 2017 the Center has released the following tweet: The Getty Center is closed to the public today. The fire is northeast of the Getty Center and east of the San Diego Freeway. Air filtration systems are protecting the galleries from smoke. We continue to monitor the situation and will issue updates as we have them.

The Getty’s vice president of communications  has explained that  “the safest place for the art is right here at the Getty”.

The picture shows the area surrounding the Getty Museum in California
The Getty Center and the vegetation around the compound from Google Maps

 

The key points for the specific fire safety strategy adopted by the museum against vegetation fire can be summarised as follows:

  • attention to the thickness of the walls and doors, designed to compartmentalize any flames;
  • the use of travertine stones (which has fire resistance characteristics) on the main external walls;
  • the use of fire resistant crushed stone on flat roofs;
  • the use of smoke detection systems and sprinklers;
  • the adoption of a sophisticated air filtration system and pressurization systems (with the possibility of reverse flow);
  • the supply of water tanks to feed abatement systems;
  • the provision of an on-site helipad to fill the helicopters with water supply of a large diameter circuit to power the property’s hydrants;
  • the design of the area around the building so as to keep it resistant to the spread of fire through the green vegetation;
  • planning the maintenance of the area surrounding the campus in order to keep it clear of the lawn;
  • the preparation of a crown of planted oaks in order to limit the growth of vegetation that could feed a vegetation fire;
  • the provision of acacia shrubs (rich in water and fire resistant) in the area adjacent to the building and on the neighboring slopes.

Smoke, hot air and toxic gases produced by a forest or vegetation fire con be  led by winds inside containing vulnerable historic or cultural artefacts and  damage them inside a building, the same way smoke and combustion products can do it when produced by an internal fire. Thus, the fire has highlighted the frequently forgotten need of assessing also the risk of external fire in assessing museum and Cultural Heritage safety.

The case of the Getty Museum shows how the fire safety of museums in some specific cases requires also the evaluation of the evacuation of people, the internal spread of fire and the spread of vegetation fire.

Image describing a typical wildland-urban interface fire
The problem of fires at the interface between wilderness and cities does not endanger lives and ordinary buildings, as the picture shows, but they can damage or destroy historical buildings or cultural heritage (Credits: usfa.fema.gov)

With reference to the risk posed by vegetation fires to buildings, called also wildland-urban interface, it may be interesting to mention that standard NFPA 1144 “Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire” provides “a methodology for assessing wildland fire ignition hazards around existing structures, residential developments, and subdivisions and improved property or planned property improvement that will be located in a wildland/urban interface area, and provides minimum requirements for new construction to reduce the potential of structure ignition from wildland fires“.

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