Tustin residents living near the giant torched Navy hangar are increasingly questioning why their neighborhoods aren’t being evacuated, how safe the air is around their homes and who’s going to help identify and clean up potentially toxic materials in their houses.
After being left in the dark for more than a week, Tustin residents held their own townhall Thursday night on Zoom with the incident command team along with Orange County Public Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, in an effort to get more information about the health impacts from the hangar fire that rained asbestos down on nearby homes.
Many residents called on officials to institute an evacuation order so people living in impacted areas could temporarily move to hotels so that the costs of those stays could be covered by homeowners’ and renters’ insurance, residents said.
Time for Evacuations?
“To not put in an evacuation order is negligent to say the least,” said a local homeowner association representative during the Thursday Zoom meeting, which saw over 160 people on it at one point.
He wasn’t alone – scores of other residents questioned why no evacuation order was issued when the fire broke out Nov. 7.
“Right now the evacuation – the (air quality) data is not supporting that,” said Tustin City Councilman Ryan Gallagher.
Gallagher was flanked by representatives from the Orange County Fire Authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Tustin Police Department and the OC Health Care Agency.
Those officials asked residents to primarily check the city’s hangar fire website for the latest information along with a hotline number at (714) 426-2444.
Thursday’s Zoom town hall was organized by resident Lana Clay-Monaghan, who helped gather some of the most pressing questions residents had for officials.
“Tonight’s focus is to get answers,” Clay-Monaghan said.
One person who said they were a homeowners association representative but did not provide his name during the Zoom call, said independent testing conducted in people’s homes already indicated asbestos and other toxins inside some houses.
“To say we’re at safe levels is ridiculous. I think we need to do the right thing here and call an evacuation order immediately,” the HOA representative said.
“Ultimately what we’re looking for here is accountability,” said resident David Sandorn.
Many Tustin residents echoed concerns laid out by the Orange County Grand Jury in 2019 and residents who’ve wrestled with other disasters like wildfires: Where’s the immediate disaster communication?
Officials said that question would be best directed to Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy, who wasn’t there Thursday night.
Other residents wanted to know if teams would clean up asbestos and other toxic materials that could’ve gotten inside their homes.
“We’re asking you why are you not testing inside our house,” one resident said. “We see people in hazmat suits outside, but you’re not providing any help for us where we’re stuck inside 24/7 … you keep saying you have resources and money, so do it on the inside. I don’t care about the streets, nobody cares about our streets anymore.”
The city councilman, Gallagher, said officials first need to figure out a game plan.
“I hear you, you are not the first one to say it – we heard a number of individuals on the call say that. I hear you and we’re going to bring this back to the group,” Gallagher said.
“We’re trying to hit this all at once – we’re trying to contain the hangar and simultaneously move through the neighborhoods,” he added.
Many people wanted to know why the hangar was left to burn.
Officials didn’t have an answer for them.
What To Do Now?
After noticing clean up crews wearing protective gear and face masks, some residents living near the torched hangar wanted to know if they should follow the same protocols and how to keep toxic dust from getting in.
Chinsio-Kwong, the public health officer, said residents should stay indoors as much as possible, wear masks outdoors and cautioned against running air conditioners and using fans.
“Right now at this time, just don’t turn any fan or AC or unit on that may draw outside air in,” Chinsio-Kwong said, adding it could bring in toxic particles.
While officials at the Air Quality Management District say the air is clean, Chisnio-Kwong said toxic particles could be inside air conditioners and fans.
She also urged residents to take their shoes off and use outside door mats before coming back inside their homes so they don’t track in microscopic particles of asbestos and other toxic chemicals that were released into the area from the hangar fire.
Chinsio-Kwong also cautioned residents about using vacuums on carpets with dust unless it has a high-grade HEPA filter.
Some residents asked where Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials were – especially after seeing them respond to the 10 freeway fire in Downtown Los Angeles so quickly.
Tara Campbell, OC Supervisor Don Wagner’s chief of staff, told residents that county officials immediately sent a letter to Newsom requesting help after the county emergency declaration was ratified last week.
Campbell, also a Yorba Linda City Council member, said the California Office of Emergency Services is ready to help.
Many residents wanted to know if it was safe to be in their homes.
“Honestly the only way to see the safety of it is to get it checked and tested … and remediate the home,” Chisnio-Kwong said.
“That really is the definitive answer.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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