Fire hits Universal Studios

A studio set is engulfed in fire as a fire fighter works to extinguish the burning set at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. A large fire destroyed a set from "Back to the Future," the King Kong exhibit and thousands of videos and reels in a vault. (AP)

Firefighters on Sunday battled a gigantic blaze at Hollywood's famed Universal Studios 12 hours after it erupted, ravaging the legendary film studio's most famous stage sets and tourist attractions.

The blaze at Universal City's backlot, which continued to smolder here Sunday, destroyed various soundstages, an archive and a streetscape depicting New York City, causing tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.

At film studios where directors conjure up dramatic scenes of disaster, flames topped 30 metres (yards), fed by propane gas from ruptured cannisters at the site of the conflagration. The cause of the fire remained under investigation, officials said.

A column of thick black smoke rose from the fire at Universal City, some 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Los Angeles, home of Universal Studios' amusement park as well as its working movie and television studios.

"As I walked out this morning ... it looked like a bomb exploded in the San Fernando Valley," Los Angeles councilman Tom LaBonge said Sunday, after surveying damage wrought by the massive fire.

Authorities said that one popular attraction at Universal City, the King Kong exhibit, was completely destroyed.

Other reported casualties included an alley from "The Sting" and movie sets from classic films like "Back to the Future," "The War of the Worlds," "Ben-Hur" and "Psycho."

The fire also consumed the set from the current hit television program "Desperate Housewives."

Universal Studios, founded in 1915, is one of a half dozen major studios which dominate the US movie industry and serve as anchors for Hollywood film productions. The others are Fox, Warner, Sony, Disney and Paramount.

Ten firefighters and police suffered minor injuries battling the blaze, officials said, as several helicopters dropped water on it early Sunday.

An explosion inside a burning videotape warehouse caused two of the injuries, with a sheriff's deputy blown off her feet and down an embankment.

Los Angeles County Fire Department chief Michael Freeman said that more than 400 firefighters were trying to extinguish the fire.

Eight hours after the fire began, a building housing 50,000 videotapes and reels as well as a scenery construction shop was still in flames, sending acrid smoke into the air.

"We're using the bulldozers to get into that building," said county fire inspector Ron Harelson. "Putting water on it helps, but we need to get in heavy equipment to expose the seat of the fire."

The video vault containing tens of thousands of videos and reels was totally destroyed, although Universal Studios CEO Ron Meyer said its main archive did not suffer irreversible losses.

"The video library was affected and damaged, but our main vault with the motions pictures negatives was not," Meyer told reporters.

"Nothing irreplaceable is lost," he said. "We were very lucky. It's a bad situation, but it could have been a lot worse."

Officials were urging residents of nearby residential areas to evacuate, out of concern over potentially toxic fumes.

Firefighters also were trying to keep the fire from spreading eastward to the bucolic Los Angeles retreat Griffith Park, where officials feared thick brush and vegetation could further feed the blaze.

The first reports of the blaze, which required helicopters and hundreds of firefighters to contain, came at 4:45 am.

"It began in the backlot area on New York street," Freeman told reporters. "It moved through that area very fast."

County fire inspector Darryl Jacobs said firefighters ran out of water at least twice while fighting the fire, and low water pressure remained an ongoing problem hampering efforts to extinguish the blaze.

"There was an issue with water, but that has been rectified. They are shuttling water in," Jacobs said.

Meyer added that the theme park, which was shuttered early Sunday because of the blaze, had not been affected by the fire. Officials initially planned to allow patrons to return later on Sunday but were now hoping to reopen on Monday morning.

The studios suffered serious damage in a fire in 1990 blamed on arson, which caused 50 million dollars in damage.