Protecting valuable media assets from fire

Important preservation considerations for California

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Firefighter california wildfires
Image source from Pixabay.

If the past few years are any indication, the need to prepare for wildfires will be a more urgent priority for individuals, communities and organizations alike in California and other places at risk. 

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), nearly 200,000 acres burned in 2019, with three lives lost and 732 structures damaged or destroyed. While not as devastating as the 2018 tragedies, this year’s fires along with other changing weather patterns, have served as a reminder of a potentially recurring threat. 

This issue concerns LAC Group on several levels—with our headquarters in Los Angeles and our media and archive business in southern California, we have many employees and clients in the state. We also run specialized vaults where we store and protect valuable film and other media assets on behalf of those clients.

Wildfire prevention and preparation

A variety of man-made and environmental factors have contributed to the growing ferocity of California’s fires, including prolonged drought, poor forest management practices and reduced firefighting budgets. If this is a “new normal”, the state and its residents will have to adopt fire prevention and protection practices on a wide scale, which have already begun:

  • Prevention programs submitted by the state’s major utility companies were approved by state regulators. 
  • Building owners are being required to harden their structures with fire-resistant materials and fire breaks. 
  • The fields of architecture, construction and technology are working together to design and build structures that can withstand fire for hours. 

As the developers and operators of specialized storage facilities, LAC Group is on the leading edge of these techniques.

LAC Group's climate-controlled, state-of-the-art vaults for film elements and magnetic media.

We safeguard high-value collections of film and media that represent an important cultural heritage. Historically, film vault fires are very rare; however, the few that have occurred destroyed several known original elements of many early films and are considered tragic historical losses. Our efforts today are focused on eliminating those types of losses by using multiple advanced fire suppression and prevention methods. 

Sound fire protection requires both passive and active measures:

  • Passive fire protection employs FM Global Standards and fire-resistant materials, including everything from safes and cabinets to building materials used in construction.
  • Active fire protection involves the use of systems that respond to fires, such as sprinkler systems and chemical fire-suppression systems. Additionally, we conduct quarterly fire testing, monthly spring testing, weekly PIV and extinguisher inspection.

Because our facilities were specially constructed to meet archival storage and preservation requirements, the standards we meet are even higher:

  • ANSI IT9.11 compliance for controlled temperature and humidity.
  • Each film vault sealed with 9-inch thick, very dense steel wool panels, sandwiched with steel and carefully monitored by specialized software to maintain consistent temperatures.
  • Air is continually sampled by a VESDA system tied to a gas fire suppression system.
  • A fire retardant building roof, along with insulated vault walls and ceilings, together provide a three-plus hour fire shell.
  • Pre-action (dry pipe) sprinkler systems offer fire protection with an added level of control that prevents water damage from inadvertent discharge.

Protecting your valuable media assets and collections

Professional archivists are well aware of the devastation and destructive force of fire and other disasters. As recently as the end of October, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library required a valiant effort on the part of firefighters to hold back the flames from the building. While the library has extensive fire-proof vaults, it also employs low-tech measures like bringing in herds of goats annually to clear the grasses and brush to create a fire break. 

Similarly, the Getty Museum employs the use of stone, fire-resistant landscaping and diligent grounds maintenance as passive fireproofing measures. Inside, the building is highly compartmentalized with sophisticated ventilation systems. Although the fires came close, the artwork was not evacuated as staff determined it was more risky to move the collection than keep it in place. 

Final words of advice: act now

Whether or not your own collection includes blockbuster movies, antiquities, artwork or other highly unique and valuable items, it’s more critical than ever to assess and inventory what you have and take action. By the time a fire threat is imminent, it’s too late to save collections with historical or organizational significance. If you’re uncertain what to do, we can help you determine the best course of action for your assets. You may submit a query on our contact us page.

Finally, it’s important for everyone in California and other high-risk locations to remember that you have much more than valuable media or historical items and artifacts to consider—you have the safety and welfare of your people. 

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp is EVP of Media & Archive services at LAC Group. He brings more than 30 years of experience in motion and still imaging – first in film, and most recently in digital. Tim has an extensive and wide-ranging understanding of the capabilities and challenges of film and video, including the issues and opportunities it presents for archivists as they face aging media libraries and an increasingly digital future.

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