There are mounting questions about why the Tustin hangar fire – now almost done but burning for over two weeks with considerable nearby asbestos debris fallout – hasn’t been declared a state emergency.
There’s also questions about whether that designation would get more immediate help to Tustin residents on the ground who seemingly face a jurisdictional mess with the hangar on federal land and city officials taking the lead on disaster response.
Tustin city officials are meeting Tuesday for their regularly scheduled public meeting, with officials heading to closed door discussions to talk about the legal fallout of the hangar fire.
In nearby Los Angeles, state disaster officials confirmed to Voice of OC that Mayor Karen Bass asked for a state emergency declaration “almost immediately” when the 10 freeway fire began.
That action put California Gov. Gavin Newsom and considerable state resources on the ground almost instantly, state officials said.
Yet no such declaration has come in Tustin, where city officials instead issued their own local disaster declaration, which was followed by the County of Orange.
But not the state.
OC is home to a lot of elected officials who backed Newsom’s recall with many even at times resisting state health department guidance on COVID. Cities like Huntington Beach are also regularly challenging Newsom in court.
What Happened In Tustin?
On the ground, local residents living in neighborhoods closest to the hangar fire really question whether the lack of state resources has made a crucial difference in the lack of progress they’ve seen.
Officials at the OC Fire Authority said they made a command decision around midnight of the first day to let the hangar burn because they couldn’t get water out there.
Local fire officials haven’t taken many public questions about that decision. We still have no idea what the cause of the fire even was.
The LA freeway fire was found to be arson.
Additionally, there’s been no discussion in Orange County about why there was no immediate plan for asbestos fall out – when that was clearly known about the facility from a host of inspections and documents like recent grand jury reports.
Both decisions raise questions whether state resources would have made a difference here.
Following weeks of bad communication over the Tustin hangar fire, residents keep asking really tough questions of their local officials – who seem overwhelmed – about the threats they face and how they’ll be addressed.
For example, while the city webpage on the disaster keeps announcing that EPA and regional air quality monitors keep finding asbestos and lead particles at safe levels, the Air Quality Management District monitoring results were often a week old.
In addition, if the air is safe, then why is the county health officer simultaneously warning folks to stay inside, wear masks outside and not to turn on air conditioning or fans, or even be careful about vacuuming?
Both are possibly true.
Air monitors might not pick up certain toxic measurements, but that doesn’t mean that residents in these neighborhoods aren’t dealing with asbestos particles that have impacted their homes and yards, with many even tracking it into their houses over the past two weeks.
I noticed that recently Congressman Lou Correa and Congresswoman Michelle Steel called for the EPA to replace the local Air Quality Management District in measuring air around Tustin.
Those are the kinds of neighborhood concerns that residents put directly to the OCFA incident team and County Public Health Officer Regina Chinsio-Kwong last Thursday – the first time I’ve seen them questioned in public .
The session was ugly, featuring residents offended by what they saw as officials rolling their eyes, offering half explanations or just sounding inconsistent.
In most places, these kinds of tough questions would have been asked by the press but not in OC. And it was thanks to residents that the forum occurred – despite the fact that state and other disaster officials always talk about the importance of public information during emergencies.
Is Orange County’s Disaster Response a Disaster?
This has become a serious problem in Orange County – one that those of us who cover disasters keep pointing out without much luck.
Whether it’s COVID or wildfires, OC public safety officials don’t like to be questioned.
Especially in real time.
Now, after calling around all day Monday I found an odd level of misunderstanding or miscommunication about the state disaster declaration and what it might mean for Orange County.
“As to resources, I’m not aware of anything we have needed so far and not had,” said Orange County Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Don Wagner.
“Whether that continues remains to be seen. Tustin will be first to know and, as I mentioned, we’ve told them anything they need from us that we have we’ll make readily available,” he added.
Yet Wagner also acknowledged that residents are reporting frustrations.
“I know the locals are frustrated. Tustin and the Navy have insisted that Tustin be the lead and AQMD specifically denied my request for wider testing throughout the county. They say they aren’t worried about the risk. We have made all of our asbestos contractors and public health officials available to Tustin. I believe Dr. [Chinsio-Kwong] has been at the Tustin emergency response meeting,” Wagner added.
But local Tustin residents just aren’t seeing a full mobilization.
These people have been on edge for two weeks.
Given how much debris is around, many expect to be evacuated while their neighborhoods are cleaned.
There are countless seniors, disabled people and those for whom English is a second language, along with a host of animals and young kids potentially shut in for a long time in a community that was designed to be outside with smaller yards and large common spaces.
Not only that, this entire area works under privatized local government – homeowner associations – that can present challenges to local governments for effective communication given different management companies, sub-associations and changing board members.
Where’s the State?
Given the unique nature of the public safety threat in Tustin, I asked Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services about why the governor didn’t take a trip down to the hangar while he visited the 10 freeway – about an hour north of us – to see for himself rather than wait on others.
It’s because local officials haven’t technically asked, Ferguson said, adding officials need to formally ask for a state emergency declaration.
Ferguson acknowledged the scale of challenges faced in Tustin and noted that state officials “stand ready” to help.
Things like public health and hazmat clean up experts, “we have that expertise at the state,” he said, adding that residents are asking “great questions” that can help state and other officials better tailor responses and services.
“We’ll be there to help them,” he said.
Yet right after publication of this column, Wagner reached back out to me, pointing out that the County of Orange disaster declaration approved by the OC Board of Supervisors specifically called on Newsom to declare a disaster.
While the request for state involvement was indeed included in the language of the county declaration, it’s not something that was publicized much until Wagner pointed it out to me. The county’s own press release the day the declaration was issued doesn’t mention a word about calling for a state disaster declaration.
Disaster declarations in Orange County aren’t always simple.
During recent storms, I remember the County of Orange declaring a state of emergency, but the City of Newport Beach refusing to.
I think COVID and the expansion of government powers during the pandemic may have left a sour taste for some OC elected officials.
Indeed, Wagner, who fought Newsom on a host of pandemic restrictions, concluded his remarks about the response in Tustin to me on Monday by adding, “Separately, I haven’t missed the Governor and have not heard that Tustin has either.”
CA Office of Emergency Services spokesman Ferguson disputed Wagner and other local officials who say a state disaster declaration isn’t needed to get more state involvement.
He noted that kind of local government decision that unlocks programs and money in a disaster – the same argument that Wagner said when he signed the county emergency declaration.
Yet after hearing Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard explain how this coordination is working between the city and county without a formal declaration calling for state help, it seems one may be needed.
And may be forthcoming.
“We provided our local emergency declaration to Cal OES. But my understanding is the City is providing damages estimates and data to the County, who is then coordinating between the multiple agencies involved and the state,” Lumbard said.
He acknowledged the whole process is “a bit more complex than the City directly asking the Governor.”
After my questions about the speed of the state’s disaster declaration in the LA freeway fire compared to Tustin, Lumbard hinted that it could be time for state officials to step in.
“It does seem appropriate given the magnitude of the needed mitigation and cleanup effort,” he said, adding that “Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris has been engaged, so I will work with her office to see what options are available.”
Ferguson, from Newsom’s office, said to stay in touch.
“It’s an ongoing conversation.”
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