Multiple schools reopen as officials continue to assess Tustin hangar fire, debris

City News Service
Thursday, November 16, 2023
Schools reopen as officials continue to assess Tustin hangar fire
Multiple Tustin Unified School District campuses reopened while officials continue their efforts to prepare for the takedown of the remnants of the fire-ravaged World War II blimp hangar.

TUSTIN, Calif. (CNS) -- Multiple Tustin Unified School District campuses reopened Wednesday while officials continue their efforts to prepare for the takedown of the remnants of the fire-ravaged World War II blimp hangar that forced the closure of schools and parks in the area.

The district originally planned to reopen some schools on Tuesday, but Allyson Muniz Damikolas, the vice president of the Tustin Unified School Board, told City News Service school officials reversed course on Monday due to the advice they were getting about the air quality.

"Nobody wants to close schools,'' Damikolas said. "I want schools opened as fast as possible and as safely as possible.''

Tustin police Lt. Ryan Coe said a recent "flare up'' of the hangar fire renewed environmental concerns, and campuses were closed again Tuesday "out of a huge abundance of caution'' so officials could check school grounds for any more debris from the blaze.

Coe encouraged residents in or out of Tustin to report anything they think could be fire debris through the city's website. That will help officials create a map of how far the debris has sailed from the torched hangar, Coe said.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Orange County Health Care Agency, the U.S. Navy and Tustin were huddling to discuss plans to tear down the smoldering west wall of the blimp hangar, Coe said.

"We're all in one room working through how and when we can get in there and have a controlled and systematic tear down of this structure,'' Coe said. "Our goal is to get that thing down as soon as possible.''

The EPA has taken over the air monitoring chores from the AQMD, Coe said.

"They'll be monitoring air quality during or after any demolition,'' Coe said. "Right now our air sampling reports are not detecting any breathable amount of asbestos.''

The elementary schools cleared to reopen Wednesday are Arroyo, Benson, Guin Foss, Ladera, Loma Vista, Myford, Orchard Hills, Peters Canyon, Red Hill and Tustin Memorial Academy. The middle and high schools cleared to reopen are Columbus Tustin, Foothill High, Hewes, Orchard Hills and Pioneer. The rest of the district's schools will continue virtual learning.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors had a special meeting Monday and unanimously ratified an emergency proclamation, making it easier to deal with the health and environmental fallout from the fire, which originally began last Tuesday afternoon.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Don Wagner explained why firefighters did not attack the blaze from the air, saying it would have caused more harm than good.

"It was an unfortunate reality of this tragedy,'' Wagner said.

Wagner told City News Service on Tuesday when asked when things might return to normal, "normal is elusive because we don't know what the fire is going to do.''

Wagner said he was told the demolition of the smoldering remnants might be timed to when rain arrives to tamp down the dust. There will be no evacuation orders, but a heads up to residents who might want to temporarily relocate while the work is done, Wagner said.

On Friday, the Tustin City Council unanimously approved an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Navy to immediately begin remediation procedures. The Navy owns the hangar property where the fire occurred.

Final details were still being worked out, but the agreement calls for the U.S. Navy to provide immediate administrative assistance and an initial $1 million to correct health and safety impacts the fire has had on the Tustin community.

The agreement also includes asbestos assessment and remediation for Tustin residents and businesses, plus demolition of the hangar to stabilize the site.

During Friday's emergency session, Tustin officials also announced plans to expand cleanup services available from the certified asbestos consulting firm Envirocheck, which began fire debris assessment and cleanup activities in the Tustin community on Thursday.

The company has a phone number for Tustin residents and businesses with fire-related debris, which people should not touch on their own. The number is 714-937-0750.

On Saturday, four days after the initial fire, it flared up again at about 5:30 p.m.

Firefighters from the Orange County Fire Authority planned to let the flare-up burn itself out, as they did when the fire first erupted, Capt. Greg Barta told City News Service.

Due to the size of the 17-story structure and difficulty of safely reaching the flames, OCFA crews opted to pull back and allow the massive wooden hangar at Valencia Avenue and Armstrong Road to burn, essentially consuming the structure.

The two giant hangars were built in 1942 and once housed blimps used during World War II.

Listed on the national Register of Historic Places, the hangars stand 17 stories high, are over 1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide -- and are two of the largest wooden structures built at the air base, according to the Tustin Hangars website.

They have been featured in television and films, including "JAG,'' "The X-Files,'' "Austin Powers,'' "Pearl Harbor'' and "Star Trek.''

Tustin officials have set up a website and a hotline, 714-628-7085, where the public can get updates.

Anyone with information that might help investigators determine the cause of the fire was asked to call 714-573-3225. Orange County Crime Stoppers will accept anonymous tips at 855-TIP-OCCS (855-847-6227).

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