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As California wildfires rage near the Getty Museum, a priceless archive is safe inside

WATCH: Firefighters battling Getty Fire on westside of Los Angeles

As flames licked the property of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, an emergency fire plan was put in motion. Thousands of priceless artifacts and collections encased inside, however, didn’t budge.

“Many have asked about the art — it is protected by state-of-the-art technology,” officials from the museum said.

“The safest place for the art and library collections is inside.”

California wildfires grow overnight, high winds a concern
California wildfires grow overnight, high winds a concern

The Getty Center sits atop rugged terrain in western Los Angeles, Calif., where the latest round of wildfires broke out on Monday. Hundreds of miles away, just north of San Francisco, crews have been battling the most destructive fire, the Kincade, for days.

The Getty Center is seen after a wildfire swept through Los Angeles’ Bel Air neighbourhood Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
The Getty Center is seen after a wildfire swept through Los Angeles’ Bel Air neighbourhood Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

While the fires took much of L.A.’s wealthy westside residents by surprise, the area is certainly not immune.

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Fire prevention measures were put in place at the Getty Center in December 2017, the last time the building was faced with a fire. The blaze burned close by, but it did not come as close as Monday’s, which has spread rapidly and since been dubbed the Getty Fire.

“We’ve been planning for years, we’ve already been ready for this,” Lisa Lapin, the vice president of communications of the Getty Trust, told the Guardian. “We had a trial run in December 2017, but the fire was on the other side of the freeway. This one was on our property.”

What happened? 

Security guards got the call about a fire encroaching on the property shortly before 2 a.m. Monday and immediately activated an Emergency Operations Center inside the building.

“By dawn, helicopters and large air tanker planes were dousing the flames and making significant progress on knocking down the blaze,” Lapin wrote in The Iris, a blog for the J. Paul Getty Trust offering a behind-the-scenes look at the museum.

“At one point, more than 12 fire trucks, including tankers, were on-site at various points on Getty roads and gates to assure the safety of the more than 600 acres of ground.”

Firefighters battling Getty Fire on westside of Los Angeles
Firefighters battling Getty Fire on westside of Los Angeles

The building’s landscaping was the first order of defence. Officials activated a sprinkler system connected to a million-gallon water tank that zig-zags across the property through an extensive network of pipes. The property had been long clear of brush, Lapin said, as workers work year-round to prevent it from becoming kindling.

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As firefighters worked to fend off the flames, fire protection of the more than 125,000 artifacts and books inside was underway.

What makes it fireproof?

The Center stretches more than 24 acres and includes a million square feet of buildings. All of it is designed to be fire-resistant, Lapin said.

The galleries have “significant protection” thanks to double-walled architecture.

“The galleries are literally buildings unto themselves within the bigger building,” she said.

A special “state-of-the-art” indoor air circulation system allows staff to push smoke from galleries, but since the rooms were sealed off “immediately” after security was alerted to the fire, no smoke made it inside, according to Lapin.

READ MORE: Smoke from California’s fast-moving wildfires is visible from space

Should the flames draw nearer, the building’s 1.5 million feet of walls and floors will protect it. Lapin said they are extremely fire-resistant, as they’re made of travertine stone — a type of limestone. In total, 300,000 travertine blocks make up the Center, weighing 84 million pounds.

A rooftop made of stone helps prevent “wind-blown embers from igniting,” she said, and 25 million pounds of steel reinforcing bars help shield what’s inside.

What’s inside?

The restoration of a fresco depicting an architectural landscape from the Villa dei Papiri, before departure to be exhibited in the exhibition “Rediscovering the Villa dei Papiri” at the Getty Museum in Malibu from 26 June to 28 October 2019, at Ercolano Archaeological Park, Naples, Italy, 28 January 2019. EPA/CESARE ABBATE
The restoration of a fresco depicting an architectural landscape from the Villa dei Papiri, before departure to be exhibited in the exhibition “Rediscovering the Villa dei Papiri” at the Getty Museum in Malibu from 26 June to 28 October 2019, at Ercolano Archaeological Park, Naples, Italy, 28 January 2019. EPA/CESARE ABBATE

The Center comprises a museum, a research institute and a foundation. Inside its four pavillions live thousands of sculptures, paintings, photography and one of the world’s largest art libraries. It also contains a renowned garden and villa.

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The art ranges from pre-20th-century European paintings to contemporary and modern sculptures, 17th-century baroque art to medieval and Renaissance decorative arts, as well a library filled with rare books, photographs and archives related to the history of art and architecture.

There are also special exhibits that rotate regularly, often on loans from museums around the world.

The museum often showcases its pieces on social media, such as its exhibit on Edouard Manet, a 19th-century French modernist painter.

Or Italian painter Bronzino, of the mid-16th century in Florence.

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What’s next?

The Center continues to be encircled in a fire zone, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials said the brush fire near the Center grew about 40 acres overnight to 658 acres, and that it’s a “good sign” it didn’t grow by more.

Lapin said the centre is considered “safe” from the fire, but smoke is still surrounding the building.

The area of the Getty fire as of Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. EST. (Google Maps/NOAA)
The area of the Getty fire as of Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. EST. (Google Maps/NOAA)

The museum is typically closed to the public on Mondays but will remain closed Tuesday and likely longer as more than 1,000 firefighters in the region battle the destructive blaze.

Weather forecasters fear conditions will worsen Tuesday night, with winds as high as 80 mph slated to blast the Los Angeles mountain area.

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Fire officials are due to be on-site overnight.

“The dedication of our staff and the professionalism of our region’s first responders was nothing short of heroic,” Getty president Jim Cuno said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for their courage and hard work.”

— With files from Reuters