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Getty Center museum: a 'beautiful fortress' against Los Angeles fires

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Nestled in the mountains above Los Angeles, the Getty Center is located in an area prone to wildfires -- but museum officials say its priceless collection is safe within the walls of a fireproof "beautiful fortress."

On Monday morning, security guards listened in to alarming calls between firefighters. A fire had broken out extremely close to the building.

The "Getty Fire" grew quickly within a few hours, forcing stars such as LeBron James and Arnold Schwarzenegger to evacuate their homes in nearby, exclusive residential areas.

Despite the flames -- which spread over 300 hectares -- and the smoke, authorities said they never considered moving any of the 125,000 artworks and 1.4 million documents that comprise the museum's unique collection.

"Our art is incredibly secure," communications vice-president Lisa Lapin told AFP. "The Getty was constructed to house valuable art and keep it very safe from fires, from earthquakes, from any type of damage."

"We are really built like a beautiful fortress and everything inside is quite safe," she added.

Architect Richard Meier built the center two decades ago, at a cost of $1 billion.

As well as the museum, it houses a research hub and a foundation with around 1,000 employees.

The building is constructed of fire-resistant travertine stone, as well as cement and steel. Its roofs are covered with crushed stone to prevent embers igniting, and even in the gardens, resilient plants were chosen.

Inside, the galleries can be separated off with a vault-like double door that is practically impenetrable.

- Ventilation system -

With the Getty empty at dawn on Monday, protection measures kicked in with the activation of the center's irrigation system, drawing on a million-gallon water tank.

The building's ventilation system switched to an internal recycling system, similar to those found in cars, preventing smoke from entering rooms from the outside.

The Getty is currently hosting a special exhibition of works by Edouard Manet.

Lapin said some art owners had contacted the museum expressing concern about the fire, but were quickly informed about the building's fireproof structure, made up of 300,000 travertine blocks and 12,500 tons of steel bars.

Monday's blaze is not the first to skirt the building.

Two years ago, the "Skirball Fire" -- named for its proximity to another nearby cultural center -- triggered the same safety measures, although it only affected the far side of an adjacent freeway.

"It was not as close as this one, and it didn't come onto our own land... But in both cases, we've been very confident that the center is fine," said Lapin.

Officials from museums around the world have visited the Getty to observe its safety system, she added.

The museum, which has served as a base for firefighters this week, will be closed until at least Friday.

The Getty Fire -- now 27 percent contained -- was caused by a tree branch that fell on power lines.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday called it "an act of God," expressing hope it would be fully controlled very soon.

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