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25 Years Ago Today: LA's Central Library Set On Fire

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"On April 29, 1986, a major emergency fire at the Los Angeles Central Library was so challenging, it required more than 350 firefighters and nearly every facet of the department before it was knocked down," explains the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society. "The tough firefight used 60 fire fighting companies, 1 arson unit, 9 paramedic rescue ambulances, 3 helicopters, 4 salvage companies, 1 squad, 2 emergency air units, a heavy utility company, and more than 40 staff and support personnel."

The fire began on the fifth tier of the northeast stacks, and was later determined to have been deliberately set. Built in 1926, the original building was designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in tribute to the architectural style of ancient Egypt. In 1986, after many renovations, the library still housed thousands of volumes that were not easily accessible to the public. The LAFD Historic Society explains the conditions at the time:

Internal stacks were packed very tightly and had very little headroom, the internal stack areas included many shelves of only six-foot height, stacked internally, so that while the public access area was about two floors plus the Science and Technology alcove, the internal stacks were approximately six floors. A plan was considered to resolve the problems, the the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and other factors caused the city to decline to fund the project. It created an ideal scenario for fire, as the building was literally stuffed to the ceiling with combustible materials.

The smoke detectors first went off at 10:52 a.m. on April 29th, 1986. The fire wasn't immediately visible, but by 11:25 the firefighters responding were aware that heat had built up rapidly in the structure. It was a challenging fire, and "the department was faced with three major problems: fire attack, ventilation, and salvage to protect the array of published works and other artifacts below the fire floor."

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The firefighters got control of the blaze by 3 p.m., and declared a knockdown at 6:30 p.m., over seven hours after the first alarm had sounded. "After an intense investigation, which also included the department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms, it was determined that the fire was intentionally set on the 5th tier of the northeast stack. 400,000 volumes - 20 percent of the library's holdings were destroyed, with significant water and smoke damage done to the surviving works." However, as notes, the "more important fact is that 85% of the total value of the structure and contents were saved. This, in a building that the national experts on library fires, as well as a former L.A. City Fire Department Chief Engineer, predicted would be a complete loss if a fire of this type ever occurred."