Tustin schools to remain closed Tuesday due to hangar fire; virtual learning plans in place

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Tuesday, November 14, 2023
Tustin schools to remain closed Tuesday due to hangar fire
The district previously said some schools were cleared to reopen, but according to a letter sent to parents Monday evening, all classes will be virtual Tuesday - and it could stay that way for the remainder of the week.

TUSTIN, Calif. (KABC) -- The Tustin Unified School District has decided to pause its reopening plan as officials continue to assess the fire that destroyed one of two massive World War II blimp hangars at the former Tustin Air Base.

Earlier on Monday, the district had announced that some schools were cleared to reopen Tuesday, including Benson, Guin Foss, Loma Vista, Myford and Red Hill elementary schools and Hewes Middle School.

However, according to a letter sent to parents Monday evening, the district said all schools will go virtual Tuesday, saying officials are preparing for a "controlled and systematic teardown of the hangar at a date to be determined."

"Based on this information and out of an abundance of caution regarding the safety of our students and staff, we have made the difficult decision to pause our reopening plan," read the letter. "As such, it is disappointing to share that all schools will participate in virtual learning [Tuesday.]"

Contingency plans are in place for schools not cleared to reopen by Tuesday, including virtual learning for students in grades 3-12 and at-home independent learning packets for students in transitional kindergarten through second grades.

The district also noted that it's possible that all TUSD schools will finish the remainder of the week in virtual instruction.

Over the weekend, a flare-up released debris into the air, caused unhealthy air quality and releasing debris containing asbestos.

"The smell is pretty strong, and you can see it's still smoldering," said Dirk Larson, who stopped by the site on Monday. "I would be a little concerned if I were living in this exact neighborhood because of course, we don't know what chemicals are in these things when they built them."

Meanwhile, the Orange County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting Monday and unanimously ratified an emergency proclamation, making it easier to deal with the health and environmental fallout from the fire.

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.

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.

"Where I live, there's no concerns, but down here, it's pretty stinky," said Bob Loeffler, who also stopped by the hangar site on Monday. "It's too bad that it's still burning and they haven't gotten it completely out."

Flare-up erupts at historic Tustin hangar after massive fire

There was a flare-up Saturday night of the fire that destroyed one of two massive World War II blimp hangars at the former Tustin Air Base.

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.

Over the weekend, Tustin school officials announced plans to have each of its 27 campuses assessed to make sure it is safe for students to return after the hangar fire caused unhealthy air quality and released debris containing asbestos.

"We have secured ... Envirocheck, to conduct testing at all TUSD campuses,'' according to the district. Envirocheck is well-respected in the field of environmental inspection and analysis and we are grateful for their partnership. Their expertise in testing and remediation of environmental concerns will guide our next steps for reopening our campuses. Our top priority remains getting our students and staff safely back on campus.''

The district was also working with the Orange County Health Care Agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the city of Tustin to determine the safety of each campus.

Campuses have been categorized, based on their distance from the burn site and the presence of fire debris. Those farthest away are labeled green, those somewhat closer are yellow and those in the immediate proximity have been categorized as red.

A complete breakdown is available at on the TUSD website.

The Tustin District serves the cities of Tustin and Irvine, plus nearby unincorporated areas.

Campuses were also closed Thursday due to health and environmental concerns stemming from the fire and were shuttered Friday in observance of Veterans Day.

"As schools are cleared for a return to in-person instruction by Envirocheck, parents will be notified,'' a district statement said. "This plan is fluid and all updates will be made in consultation with environmental experts and partners. We continue to be grateful to our students, families, staff, community, and partners for your patience, understanding, and support in working through the impacts of the North Hangar fire.''

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 about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Capt. Greg Barta said. 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.

On Wednesday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a warning about unhealthy air quality in the area after tests of debris and ash from the fire showed the presence of asbestos, prompting the issuance of an emergency proclamation and the call for residents to take precautions.

Orange County health officials urged people in the area to limit their exposure to the smoke and ash.

"Everyone should be aware of the recommended precautions to reduce the health effects of smoke and ash from building fires,'' Dr. Regina Chinsio- Kwong, Orange County Health Officer and OC Health Care Agency's Director of Public Health Services, said in a statement.

"Extra measures may be needed for those with pre-existing medical conditions like heart or lung disease, those with disabilities, older adults, children and those who may be working outdoors.''

Health officials listed several ways the public can stay safe:

Avoid touching fire debris/ash or other materials unless properly trained to do so;

Wear protective equipment (mask/gloves) if in an area where there is high risk of encountering asbestos;

Remove shoes before entering a residence;

Keep windows closed on windy days;

Spray patios with water instead of sweeping them;

Avoid using leaf blowers;

Wash off ash from vehicles, outdoor toys, outdoor furniture and pets.

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).

City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.