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Our View: L.A. County should douse this fire code

Posted: December 4, 2009 5:15 p.m.
Updated: December 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The city of Santa Clarita says it could mean the death of the local movie industry as we know it.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department says it is much ado about nothing.

Who is right?

The Fire Department adopted a new code last May to regulate the false fronts and fake buildings found on our many local movie ranches.

The department wanted to prevent a repeat of last year’s fire on the Universal Studios backlot. Ten firefighters were injured as they doused the blaze that destroyed several film sets and the King Kong exhibit.

If the sets had sprinklers and adhered to the same regulations that apply to office buildings and homes, the firefighters might not have been injured. Or so the theory goes.

Nobody in his or her right mind would say we shouldn’t do everything we can to save our firefighters’ lives.

But it’s just nutty to subject fake buildings and movie sets to standards meant for buildings where people work or live all year long.

Can you imagine?

Let’s say a film company changes a script and all of a sudden, it calls for an interior wall where there wasn’t one before.

Previously, workers would erect the wall in a couple of hours and shooting would start that night.

Now, the company would need to submit plans, get them approved, hire contractors and wait for both Fire Department and county Public Works Department inspections.

In the meantime, the production company has fled to Canada.

Deputy Chief Scott Poster of the Fire Department downplayed the new rule.

“We haven’t been contacted by any of the movie ranches in Santa Clarita yet,” he said last week.

The city says otherwise.

“These new regulations immediately raised concerns among (movie) ranch owners as they felt various elements in the updated fire regulations were in direct conflict with day-to-day operation of film production and would make it nearly impossible to continue doing business,” according to a city staff report.

“City of Santa Clarita staff met with concerned ranch owners to understand their issues and frustrations with regard to the new regulations,” the report states. “The city manager’s office then met with (the Fire Department) on several occasions, sharing the ranch owners’ concerns.”

Fire officials told the city “each film project and ranch would be assessed independently” and might not have to adhere to the letter of the code, the city report states.

Uh, that’s nice. But the county fire chief is retiring, and who’s to say whether the next chief will take such a lax approach to the written rules?

Poster suggested the city might not have read the new code before it got excited about it.

He must not have noticed all 11 pages of new regulations were attached to the city staff report, which we’d suggest he didn’t read if he didn’t know about the movie ranch owners’ concerns.

Poster said the new rules “(don’t) affect anything at Melody Ranch” — the famous movie ranch in Placerita Canyon.

Our reading of those 11 pages tells us otherwise.

Right up front, the rules say they apply to “all new permanent facades clustered or grouped together and practical interior sets.”

By using the word “new,” the code implies that existing permanent facades and sets are exempt. Right?

Wrong. It says the new rules apply to “those altered portions of such facades or sets after the effective date of this regulation.”

As noted above, film sets and facades are “altered” all the time.

The new rules spell out strict specifications and require inspections of everything from foundations and slabs to framing and fire separation walls.

They regulate everything from the distance of fire access roads to the width of staircases (so much for HBO’s “Deadwood”) to the types of permissible masonry and steel.

One particular area of concern is the requirement for sprinklers.

Section IV(B)(1) states: “The required fire flow for all new permanent facades shall not be less than 5,000 gallons per minute for five hours.”

On a false front? Let it burn.

The movie ranches in the more remote canyons of northern Saugus and Agua Dulce can’t be expected to have that kind of water flow.

“Because these structures are not built with the intent of occupancy,” the city report states, “this new regulation is not only costly, but would (also) require a time commitment for building that is not inherent to the film production process.”

Plus, the remote movie ranches probably wouldn’t have gotten the approvals to exist in the first place if they had been required to supply that much water.

What now?

Poster said he didn’t know about any upcoming meeting, but the city intends to meet with fire officials later this month.

At that meeting, movie ranches and production companies are expected to float the idea of an amendment to the new regulations to exempt them from some of the more onerous provisions.

One player is the Walt Disney Co., which intends to build a dozen new sound stages near its existing Golden Oak movie ranch, whose facades and sets are also subject to the new rules.

Disney has submitted a draft amendment for the Fire Department’s consideration.

The new regulations might be a “done deal,” as Poster said, but the debate is just beginning.

There is a solution. We’re not there yet.

Firefighters expect and deserve for there to be rules designed to save their lives.

If our movie ranches want to skirt some of the rules our firefighters would like to impose, then they shouldn’t expect the same level of structure protection our firefighters would provide for a permanently occupied building.

It’s only fair.

Melody Ranch is a historic film set, but most of its individual buildings are not historic.

They burned down in 1962 and the Veluzat brothers have been rebuilding them since 1991 — adding to them and altering them to meet the demands of the production companies that lease their facility.

If it’s a choice between saving the facades and the surrounding homes in the next great Placerita Canyon conflagration, our firefighters will know what to do.


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