Two popular Universal Studios backlot shooting locations -- New York Street and the Back to the Future courthouse square -- were engulfed in smoke Sunday during a wild predawn blaze that turned the King Kong amusement park attraction and countless copies of studio films and TV shows in a cavernous video vault into charcoal.
According to Variety, the fire was still burning hours later, and the full impact on shooting and themepark operations was unclear.
"Only three to four acres burned," said a Universal rep Sunday afternoon. "There are plenty of other locations." The studio had no info then regarding future production in the affected areas.
The studio initially had hoped to open the theme park but ultimately decided to keep the gates closed Sunday. CityWalk restaurants reopened in the afternoon and the MTV Movie Awards was still skedded for the evening in the Gibson Amphitheater, possibly with a relocated red carpet.
Universal Studios prexy and chief operating Ron Meyer called the blaze a "bad situation" but said it could have been much worse, noting that the studio's main motion picture vault was not affected. More than 40,000 films and TV shows were stored in the video vault that burned, but he said the studio has "lots of duplicates" elsewhere.
"Fortunately, nothing irreplaceable was lost," said Meyer, who walked the lot with longtime fixture Steven Spielberg in the morning to assess the damage.
Meyer confirmed that the fire damaged two of the eight locations for the CBS drama "The Ghost Whisperer" and "completely destroyed" a set that most recently housed "Changeling," a Universal feature directed by Clint Eastwood that just had its premiere at Cannes. A U spokesperson said "Ghost Whisperer" was already on hiatus until mid-June and that the studio would find other locations for it to use when shooting resumed.
The Sunday-morning blaze broke out in an area that previously burned during a 1990 fire caused by arson. That fire caused tens of millions of dollars in damages; Spielberg helped rebuild the area back then.
The Los Angeles County Fire Dept. could not immediately determine the cause of Sunday's blaze, which quickly engulfed three to four acres of the 391 acres on the lot. Loud explosions woke nearby residents, but it was not immediately clear whether they caused the fire or were a byproduct of it.
Hundreds of firefighters raced to the scene, but their early efforts were hampered by low water pressure; they drew water from backlot ponds and lakes to aid their work. Several firefighters suffered minor injuries.
The melting plastic and reels from the video vault spewed toxins into the air around Universal Studios. After much consultation with the fire department and air quality officials, the studio decided to keep the park closed for the day. Health officials advised those in the surrounding area with respiratory problems to avoid outdoor exposure.
After the 1990 blaze, the New York street was rebuilt with reengineered facades that were meant to offer fire retardation and protection, but a fire department spokesman said Sunday's blaze overwhelmed those safety measures. City officials immediately promised a review of fire safety precautions in the wake of Sunday's inferno.