Universal Studios fire engulfs sets, video vault, King Kong exhibit

A large fire on Sunday at Universal Studios has destroyed several movie sets while spewing a column of smoke over Hollywood.

A massive fire on Sunday at Universal Studios that destroyed a giant sound stage, a video library and several movie sets is under control, say fire officials in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County fire Insp. Daryl Jacobs said that as many as three blocks of movie facades as well as the courthouse square set used in the Michael J. Fox movie Back to the Future have been destroyed.

"The facades are constructed of heavy timber and they tend to burn quite freely," said Jacobs. 

At a news conference,  Los Angeles County fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said the fire began on what's described as the "New York street" set, moved on to the King Kong exhibit and then over to buildings housing a sound stage and video library.

"A total of five structures within the New York exhibit, including one sound stage, were lost," said L.A. County fire inspector Frank Garrido,

Various reports say either the video vault or the King Kong building are still burning as plumes of smoke continue to blacken the skies above L.A.

Firefighters were able to rescue hundreds and hundreds of video canisters. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels were damaged.

The fire did not affect another film vault, which contains archival footage.

Ghost Whisperer sets damaged

The cause of the blaze is under investigation. Fire officials say they have concerns about the malfunction of internal sprinklers, which prevented firefighters from battling the blaze from the inside.

Universal president Ron Meyer said the fire damaged two sets for the CBS drama Ghost Whisperer and obliterated the set used by the Clint Eastwood-directed film The Changeling, which premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival.

Meyer also said a commercial had been shooting this weekend on the lot's New York street. The executive went on to praise the Los Angeles and Burbank fire departments.

"They are real heroes, they contained a fire which could have burned horribly out of control … We were very lucky today."

Some 400 firefighters went to the scene to keep the fire from spreading. Three firefighters went to hospital with minor injuries.

'Nothing irreplaceable was lost. We have duplicates of everything that was lost."—Universal president Ron Meyer

Universal City — a 180-hectare site which includes sound stages, outdoor sets and a theme park — sits 15 kilometres northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The Universal Studio lot was founded in 1915 and has now experienced a total of seven fires.

Studio spokesman Eliot Sekuler confirmed the King Kong exhibit is destroyed. The exhibit — featuring a giant ape which bellows — is a stop on the studio's tram tour. The theme park will still open on Sunday although the studio tour may be affected.

Two mock New York and New England streets used for movie making and tourist displays were "a total loss," he said.

According to Meyer, "the entire property will be open for business as usual on Monday."

"Nothing irreplaceable was lost. We have duplicates of everything that was lost," said Meyer, who confirmed that two locations for TV series were affected but did not divulge any other details.

Fire Capt. Frank Reynoso says the blaze broke out just before dawn Sunday  and at least one explosion was heard.

Many famous films such as Psycho, ET, Transformers and Jurassic Park have used the studios. It's also the setting for shows such as Desperate Housewives, Scrubs and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The 2008 MTV Movie Awards, scheduled to be broadcast live from the park Sunday afternoon local time, will not be affected, an MTV representative said.

With files from the Associated Press