- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. (AP) | A fire that ripped through sets and attractions at Universal Studios has been ruled an accident, Los Angeles County fire officials said Monday.

Studio workers had been using a blowtorch to heat asphalt shingles to apply to the roof of a building facade early Sunday, said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman. They finished about 3 a.m. and followed policy of standing watch for one hour, then left for a break, he said.

A security guard spotted the fire and reported it at 4:43 a.m., Chief Freeman said.

The fire erupted on a streetscape featuring New York brownstone facades at the 400-acre property. It then destroyed a “King Kong” attraction, the courthouse square from “Back to the Future” and a streetscape featured in “Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers.”

Meanwhile, tourists applauded firefighters Monday as Universal Studios reopened, while investigators examined the ruins of some of the most famous sets in Hollywood to find the cause of the spectacular weekend blaze.

When the gates opened, hundreds of people streamed into the venerable movie studio-theme park, which was closed Sunday after the morning fire.

Tourists on the tram ride through the sets gave a round of applause to firefighters still putting out hot spots. At least a dozen firetrucks remained on the lot, and smoke was still rising from thick, twisted piles of girders.

The fire tore through the back lot as firefighters struggled to overcome low water pressure and an overwhelmed sprinkler system. Nine firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy suffered minor injuries in the blaze.

“The water-pressure situation was a challenge,” Chief Freeman said. “This fire moved extremely fast.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said authorities would investigate the water problems to see whether they reflect a larger shortfall in the area.

In addition, the sprinkler system on the outdoor sets was nearly useless, Chief Freeman told the Los Angeles Times for Monday’s editions.

While 25,000 tourists visit on a typical weekend day, Universal Studios’ back lot is also a working studio, with streetscapes and soundstages.

Universal Studios said it could take several days to assess damage, but it was “business as usual” at its theme park, and TV and movie production resumed Monday.

“The studio is open, production has resumed and our theme park and CityWalk reopened for business today,” said spokeswoman Cindy Gardner.

None of the 30 soundstages on the lot was damaged, and the New York streetscape will be rebuilt, she said.

Concerns about air quality because of the acrid smoke and a request from fire officials prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to send a chemist to take air samples, spokesman Sam Atwood said.

The fire, the second at the historic site in two decades, leveled facades, creating the kind of catastrophe filmmakers relish re-creating.

NBC Universal President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer estimated there were 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels of film in a vault that burned but said duplicates were stored in a different location. Firefighters managed to recover hundreds of titles.

Universal officials said they were thankful no visitors were seriously injured and that the damaged footage can be replaced.

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