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Fire and Art: The Getty and Where To Store Yours

Hillside near the Getty. | Gene Blevins/Reuters

With multiple fires raging in California including Thomas and Skirball [where they get these names, I don't know---a topic for another article], the lives of humans, pets, wildlife, and structures including thousands of homes are at risk. Despite lack of sufficient containment, casualties have been minimized with the displacement of more than 200,000 people in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles County combined. Now Thomas is currently, but still growing, the 4th largest wildfire in California's history at 252,000-acres and is only 35% contained.

Yet the 93%, if not completely contained, 422-acre Skirball Fire of ritzy Bel-Air, California [perhaps you remember The Fresh Prince...] has gained way more national attention as it threatened mansions, UCLA, and the infamous Getty Museum.

As thousands were evacuated and all of that valuable/historic/irreplaceable art was being threatened [something only an artist can comprehend], Ron Hartwig, vice president of communications for the J. Paul Getty Trust, let it be known that,

“The safest place for the artwork to be is right here in the Getty Center.”

New York Times | Source Google Earth

Richard Meier, The Getty's architect, implemented fire resistance as well as dozens of other safeguards into his design ranging from the type of stone used on the outside walls and roofs, automatic fire doors, a carbon-filtered air conditioning system that pulls air out and prevents it from moving back in, a one million gallon underground water tank just below the parking structure [connected to internal sprinklers kept dry until use], and an irrigation system throughout the grounds in case the fire resistant shrubbery [including acacia plants] aren't enough to keep the flames at bay. Basically it's a masterpiece, much like the pieces it holds. For further details on the fortress also known as The Getty Villa, see New York Times article here.

Santa Barbara, CA @studiostoicheff

Though the art I own ranges well under the $1,000 mark, I live in Santa Barbara four blocks from the Evacuation warning line. Upon awakening to no electricity Sunday morning, it became clear that the winds blew the Thomas Fire further toward Montecito [my neighbor] late Saturday night. As my Santa Barbarians and I realized this fire meant business, I began to pack.

Filmore, CA | Cate Imperio

I have never been living long-term in an area forced under evacuation, but I realized that I must get some things together before sundown as it can be very difficult to pack with a flashlight. I prepared what was necessary for my pet Iguana, picked up refills of my prescriptions, grabbed all of my external hard drives and camera equipment and began searching through my filing cabinet for my birth certificate, car title, and apartment least agreement. The city anticipated the mandatory order was imminent. I waited for the evacuation, went to bed, and waited some more. By Monday, it still had not come, and with the previously listed items already in my car, I began to imagine which direction my house would start to burn if the fire continued spread my way. I then considered placing items like irreplaceable art pieces in the last area to burn. I was worried I might break or ding up art sculptures and paintings in my trunk since they were not prepared for travel. Then I considered the basics, would rather broken art or no art, and said fuck it, lets go. I loaded all of my 'permanent collection' into the car.

However, before that extra day, I did some research into if you must abandon your home quickly in a fire, where to keep you art collection [other than a giant fire/waterproof safe the size of a closet] to minimize damage.

There are are three rules. First is location, location, location. Pieces stay safest the lower they are placed in to the house as fire tends to move upward. If you have a basement, all the better. Also, avoid areas where house fires are more likely to occur like overloaded electrical outlets and appliances of course. The kitchen has a high probability of being a source of house fires, so this room is a no go all around for safe keeping. My brainstorming began with the thought of putting my art in the oven. I figured that since it was large enough and built to keep heat and fire in, it must fare well at keeping fire and heat out. Then I remembered the gas line.

The second rule is along the lines of my original oven idea---the freezer. Belongings placed in the freezer tend to resist damage as it is usually one of the last things to burn in a fire ---freezers not in the kitchen are ideal, but rather basement or garage. The whole melting of water factor crosses my mind, but I guess you can store artwork in garbage bags/Ziplocs to prevent water damage.

Third and lastly, if all else fails, dig a hole in the backyard and bury it. Apparently dogs have always had the right idea for safekeeping all along.

Currently, Thomas is still raging and Friday marks the 12th consecutive red flag fire weather warning for the SB/LA County areas. National Weather Service meteorologist Curt Kaplan points out another record broken by these fires claiming,

“This has been the longest duration event that we have had a red flag warning out without any breaks.”

With natural disasters on the rise [Texas', Florida', Puerto Rico' hurricanes and Mexico's earthquakes to name a few], it's apparent perhaps our personal valuable protection plans for our own individual households need re-evaluating, and we have the most power to do just that. Of course all lives matter and need to be saved first, but I'm not going to sit here and pretend that our grandmother's jewelry, non-digital family photos, and art collections are not at the tops of our minds.

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