Fire Hits UC-Santa Cruz Labs

A three-alarm fire ravaged two labs at University of California, Santa Cruz, knocking out power and shutting down multiple buildings during the early hours of Jan. 11. The Sinsheimer building where the fire occurred remains closed, displacing approximately 150 researchers who are now scrambling to assess the damage, find new lab space, and salvage whatever is possible. "The upper floor, where the real devastation occurred, is not likely to be back to normal use for six to eight months,"

By | February 4, 2002

A three-alarm fire ravaged two labs at University of California, Santa Cruz, knocking out power and shutting down multiple buildings during the early hours of Jan. 11. The Sinsheimer building where the fire occurred remains closed, displacing approximately 150 researchers who are now scrambling to assess the damage, find new lab space, and salvage whatever is possible. "The upper floor, where the real devastation occurred, is not likely to be back to normal use for six to eight months," says Elizabeth Irwin, director of the UC-Santa Cruz public information office.

The fire started in the lab of Manuel Ares, chair of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and also gutted the adjoining lab occupied by Jane Silverthorne. The cause of the fire is unknown, although a computer was stolen from the Ares lab a few days before the fire. "The connection is unclear at this point, but the investigation is ongoing," says Ares.

Three graduate students in the Ares lab lost varying amounts of data and reagents. "Valerie Welch is a third-year student who stands to lose the most. She was developing arrays to monitor alternative splicing in human cells, focusing on cancer- and apoptosis-related genes. She lost most of her oligo set [approximately 600 oligos] and all of her arrays," says Ares. Silverthorne is on academic leave working with the National Science Foundation, and her lab has been dormant for the last few months.

Building safety features and a quick response from disaster teams minimized research losses. "The fire walls and fire doors held and the fire was contained to the two affected labs," says Irwin. However, significant water, smoke, and heat damage are evident throughout the building. "Even in the nearby areas the integrity of the freezers held," Irwin adds. Although freezers inside the labs were destroyed, the -80°C freezers survived because they were housed outside of the main labs. Rescuing items in these freezers was also one of the highest priorities when disaster teams entered the building after the fire was extinguished. "We used almost 2,000 pounds of dry ice," says Irwin.

Computer data was distributed throughout the department because of the collaborative nature of research at UC-Santa Cruz labs, and all of the computers were networked. Ironically, key data from the Ares lab may have been saved because overcrowding had caused Ares' most senior graduate student to store most of his work on a computer in a different wing of the building, according to Elisha Wood-Charlson, an undergraduate researcher. In addition, UC-Santa Cruz has retained Balfor, a disaster recovery company that recently participated in recovery efforts at the World Trade Center in New York. "They can recover data held on hard drives from damaged computers and are working on the recovery of electronic data as a top priority," notes Irwin.

Although such disasters are rare, they aren't unheard of. Just last month a fire erupted in a Princeton University lab, and in July 2001 a chemistry lab explosion injured one researcher and shut down labs at UC-Irvine. In 1989, researchers at Stanford University experienced losses following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Preventing Losses

"In order to prevent losses, the first thing researchers can do is take a look at how they back up existing data, whether it is electronic or biological," says David Silberman, director of the health and safety Programs at Stanford University School of Medicine. "Backing up electronic data doesn't mean just copying it onto a disk and storing it in your drawer either. It really needs to be off site and that's pretty easy—you can take it home, or there are companies that store data," he continues.

"With biological materials it is a little trickier. People have been known to work out arrangements [to store biological materials] with colleagues on the east coast or in the Midwest, especially if there is a collaboration going on," notes Silberman. He added that unlike electronic data, it might be unwise for researchers to store infectious material at home.

The distributed nature of the data and reagents at UC-Santa Cruz worked to minimize losses. However, everything was still contained in one building, and researchers are now beginning to think about off-site redundancy. "People lost a lot of organisms and are saying it would be a great idea if we had a stock exchange program with Stanford or something. We have two huge buildings for biology just on the [UC-Santa Cruz] campus, so stocks could be divided up between those too," says Wood-Charlson.

Having backup copies isn't enough, however; you also have to remember to check on them after a disaster. Babak Alizadeh did part of his graduate work in Howard Sussman's lab at Stanford and was there for the 1989 earthquake. "Howard lost some of his most precious antibodies even though they had backups," says Alizadeh. "Nobody noticed that the cold room down the hall went out and completely thawed. It was an unpopular place to go because it was next to the morgue," explains Alizadeh.

Alizadeh later worked in a lab that had special fire-resistant cabinets. "We stored documents, backup tapes, and other things that were really important. They were expensive, but the alternative was too damaging not to do it," he says. According to Julie Hautzenroeder, a Fisher Scientific account representative, fire-resistant cabinets, which are more commonly used to store flammable materials, range from $575 to $780, depending on size.

Not Just Fire Damage

Not all the damage in the UC-Santa Cruz incident was from fire, however; water also caused significant damage, especially to paper records. "The response teams have been amazing. They brought in a huge [tractor-trailer rig] that they filled with paper—books and journals and irreplaceable stuff—to take away to freeze dry to prevent permanent damage," says Wood-Charlson.

Lab notebooks are an especially vulnerable resource because paper is so susceptible to both fire and water damage. New technology such as electronic lab notebooks could safeguard data, but it doesn't seem to have caught on. "Unless there is a dedicated scanner to scan in graphs or plates into an electronic notebook it is difficult," observes Silberman. "Written notebooks are relatively straightforward to photocopy," he adds.

Fires are usually the most devastating disaster for labs and, surprisingly, Silberman says that earthquakes often aren't as bad as power outages. "It doesn't take more than six hours of a power outage to screw people up," he says. To prevent losses in a power outage critical equipment should be plugged into outlets with backup power. "One of the problems we face is that there aren't enough emergency outlets to accommodate all of the freezers and incubators. Some departments rotate freezers [to the backup outlets] during power outages. It requires an awful lot of planning, you need to have enough extension cords around, for example," he says.

The main challenge researchers at UC-Santa Cruz face now is getting back to work. According to Wood-Charlson even though the Ares lab was the worst hit, Ares has been working nonstop to find research space for displaced scientists. The campus community rallied to provide space, and labs have relocated to at least three other science buildings on campus. Professors in other departments are sharing offices and the local biotech community has also offered space and resources. Amazingly, just four days after the fire, some scientists were beginning to start work again in their new labs. "It definitely turned out better than I expected when I walked by the building and saw water running out the windows," concludes Wood-Charlson.

Mignon Fogarty (mignon@welltopia.com) is a freelance science writer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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