Navy gives $1 million to start historic hangar fire clean-up in Southern California
Stars and Stripes November 17, 2023
The Navy has sent $1 million to the city of Tustin, Calif., to jump-start clean-up of the fire that destroyed a World War II blimp hangar on a former military air station.
“Demolition is the plan, but it’s not scheduled yet. We have to find out the best way to get this done,” said Christopher Dunne, spokesman for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington, D.C.
A fire broke out Nov. 7 at Hangar 1, one of a pair of 17-story tall wooden hangars on the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, which closed in 1999.
Built at the outbreak of World War II, the hangars housed blimps that patrolled the coast looking for Japanese submarines. They remained on the base as it transitioned over the decades to a helicopter air station of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. When the base closed, the Navy conveyed 1,300 acres to local governments for housing, businesses and a large public park.
The Navy retained 225 acres that included the hangars until an agreement could be reached on their future use. Nearly three decades later, no plan has won approval from federal and local governments.
Hangar 1 had been unused since a 2013 windstorm damaged its roof. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The Orange County Fire Authority fought the blaze for several hours, including calling in air drops of fire retardant by leased CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
The fire continued to burn for over a week before rains doused the final hot spots.
Smoke from the fire released large amounts of asbestos, arsenic, lead, nickel and benzene into the air across a heavily urbanized portion of the county of more than 3.2 million people.
A state of emergency was declared, closing nearby schools, businesses and public parks. Residents were advised to stay inside their homes with windows sealed.
Residents said it was often impossible to avoid the mix of wood particles and toxic materials in ash that spread for miles beyond the hangar.
“I still woke up in the morning with ash on my eyelids,” said Karen Kelso, a resident of nearby North Tustin.
Local leaders in Tustin and Orange County have been calling for the immediate demolition of the wrecked hangar.
Orange County Third District Supervisor Don Wagner said Tuesday that he expected the demolition to begin shortly. Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard also said on Tuesday that the demolition would likely begin “later this week.”
But the property is under Navy control. An agreement signed Nov. 10 between the Navy and local officials sent the $1 million to begin clean-up. The funds came from the Navy’s budget for implementing the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) actions that shuttered dozens of bases at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.
But the hangars remain Navy property and require approval from federal authorities before razing what remains of Hangar 1.
As of late Friday, no timetable was set for starting to pull down the remaining walls and the massive metal door of the hangar, framed by a pair of concrete pillars.
U.S. Rep. Young Kim, whose district includes the hangar, sent a letter Nov. 9 to Elizabeth Roddy, the environmental administrator for the Navy’s closed military installations. It was signed by nine other members of Congress from both political parties who represent Southern California districts.
“Does the Navy have a plan for cleaning up the site and mitigate effects to the surrounding communities?” Kim asked.
Kim declined further comment on Friday, but her office issued a statement that the Navy response showed progress was being made.
“There is still a long way to go, and she fully expects the Navy to be a strong partner in this process,’” the statement said.
The Navy has joined in a coordinated emergency response group of federal, state and local officials and agencies, including air quality and public health experts.
The group’s website on Friday posted an update that the Navy’s money had been used to hire a contractor to begin clean-up of debris in neighborhoods around the hangar.
“Although we are working through the neighborhoods as quickly as possible, completion of this task will take several days,” the group reported.
Recent rains helped improve air quality.
“All particulate matter (the pollutant most associated with smoke from fires) data at community sites are well below any level of concern,” the group reported.
It remains unclear when the site can be bulldozed.