Getty Center safe from nearby fire, but is nature safe from fire retardants?

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The Getty Fire burns next to the 405 freeway in the hills of West Los Angeles. October 28, 2019. Photo credit: Gene Blevins/Reuters

Fire season has engulfed northern and southern California. This week it’s the turn of the Westside. The Getty Fire has caused thousands to be evacuated, some homes have been lost, and there have been concerns about the Getty Center and its contents. 

The Getty Trust’s VP of communications Lisa Lapin told DnA by phone Monday that the hilltop institution, designed by Richard Meier, is a very, very safe place for art.

“We take tremendous precautions related to fire prevention here because we were up on the top of a hill and surrounded by wild land. So our buildings are made of stone and metal, and we have stone roofs, and we do aggressive brush clearance, and we store water on site so that we can prevent fires ourselves if we see something,” she said.

One of the artworks at the Getty is its garden, which was designed by the artist Robert Irwin. She said the garden is fine, because it’s on the south side of the campus. However, on the northern side of the Getty Center, “a lot of vegetation is going to be gone. The vistas are going to be different, you know, to the north and to the west.”

Lapin’s point about the vegetation got us wondering about those air tankers she mentioned and the hot pink fire retardant that is used by firefighters to slow the spread of fires. Is it safe for California’s people, animals and its native and non-native plants?

We asked landscape designer Wade Graham. He told us that the product, named Phos-Chek, was originally owned by Monsanto. And it’s a combination of mostly water, also fertilizer and other additives, coloring and chemicals.

“In concentrated doses it kills fish in streams, it kills wildlife with a direct hit. We do also know that you're introducing huge nutrient loads into landscapes that probably don't want those. They’re minerally poor soils. It's going to encourage weed growth. It's going to encourage grasses that burn more frequently. So there's certainly an environmental effect to heavy use of this stuff,” Graham said.

But, he added, “these landscapes are burning in part because we've excluded fire, because we have a policy of total fire suppression. These are fire landscapes. Some amount of fire needs to be permitted in these landscapes. Otherwise, you just have a war. An endless kind of a war.”