Nearly a week after the huge toxic fire at the historic U.S. Navy hangar in Tustin, residents are still waiting for someone to remove the asbestos and metal dust raining down on their yards. 

There’s also real concern to see more real time air monitoring results in Tustin and surrounding areas. 

Until then, the operative direction from a myriad of public agencies for these residents is to basically lock down, stay indoors and use masks if they go outside. 

And wait 


Sound familiar?

Whether it’s COVID, wildfires or the oil spill, it’s the same result every time. 

“The communication has been abhorrent,” said Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard on Monday morning, echoing the frustration he’s hearing from local residents who keep getting conflicting information from different agencies. 

It’s a pattern seen locally here in Orange County in recent years: When emergencies hit, residents are often left in the dark. 

[Read: County Emergency Agencies Fail Residents When It Comes To Disaster Warnings, OC Cities Pick Up The Slack]

These super funded public agencies that are supposed to protect public safety never seem to understand that public information efforts are just as important as all the Batman and Robin equipment they operate and maintain. 

Consider the dozen or so neighborhoods around the fire, who keep waiting for their yards to get cleaned. 

If you ask Lumbard, he’ll tell you that the reason that asbestos contractors haven’t been able to go onto private yards yet to start collecting toxic debris from the hangar fire is because the Air Quality Management District – a regional agency hasn’t authorized it yet. 

To date, the city has two contractors – Enviro Check and ATI – working on remediating areas in Tustin, according to the mayor. 

A Tustin resident gathers debris that fell throughout his home on from Nov. 7, 2023. Credit: NORBERTO SANTANA, JR., Voice of OC

But they are only authorized to work in public areas like medians, main streets and parks, Lumbard said. 

Not private yards. 

That differs from what the regional air quality agency says. 

“South Coast AQMD has given pre-approvals for plans including residential cleanup,” wrote AQMD Spokeswoman Nahal Mogharabi in a Monday email.

“At this point South Coast AQMD is not holding anything back,” she wrote.

After publication, Lumbard reached out to say AQMD had finally issued the approvals needed to give residents the ability to use government-funded contractors. 

Lumbard said the city would soon be setting up an online portal for residential reporting of debris. 

Previously, when I talked to the array of residents who have been reaching out to me, they say that Enviro Check is telling them that they can only go out into the field and assess damage. Remediation will come later. 

As usual, it’s very hard to get anybody to talk on the record – despite taxpayers paying for an array of public information efforts and officials. 

When it comes to disasters, again and again, the first casualty is informing the residents and taxpayers. 

Much of the time, officials are freaked out by the potential of lawsuits. 

Yet they never seem to measure up that fear with the fear felt by a resident inside their home without real time information at the time you most need it. 

Since the disaster began, agencies point you to bare websites, stale social media posts, hotlines that aren’t really responsive with Information or email addresses that don’t respond quickly. 

And they’re always playing catch up – through websites.

Consider that early statements from the Orange County Health Care Agency’s top public health experts initially made no reference to asbestos or heavy metals from the base – something a quick read of the latest grand jury report on the site made plainly clear. 

Regarding air quality, the county established a main website that goes to the city where residents can find the most recent statements.

The county website has some air quality sampling results from about a week ago.

And here’s a link to the lab report from that page that talks about air quality on Nov. 8.

Tustin hangar after the early November fire. Nov. 9. 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Here’s what the county website said about air quality:

“On the day of the fire, South Coast AQMD deployed its mobile monitor to take measurements of metals, including lead and arsenic. The majority of results from the mobile monitoring showed no elevated levels of metals. For short periods of time on November 7, the mobile monitor showed elevations of lead and arsenic inside the area of the smoke plume. Mobile monitoring on November 8 did show some elevated levels of lead, but the levels were five times lower than those observed during the fire.  

“South Coast AQMD took additional glass plate samples on November 9, which are being analyzed in the laboratory. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is providing technical assistance to the county on long term air and ground samples.”

The AQMD’s Mogharabi pointed further questions – like real time air monitoring results – back to the incident command center.

Good luck finding someone there that can take a call. 

To date, the main guy at Tustin answering questions has been Mayor Lumbard. 

During a Monday morning interview, Lumbard initially told me the Orange County Fire Authority had taken over public information but he later reached to clarify that the City of Tustin is now taking over that job with a Tustin PD PIO responding to public requests for information at

It’s a good thing we are beyond having to depend on OCFA for information, the same folks with a stale Twitter feed, no press conferences and public information officers that can barely answer one question without getting tense, short and pointing you back to social media.

And the same folks that are triggering lots of tough questions about leaving the fire burning for a week. – apparently because they can’t get the water they need to target the hangar hot spots. 

Again and again, Orange County disaster communications fail residents miserably every time they are tested.

You would think for something as large as a burning 17-story former military hangar that’s affecting regional air quality, even potentially nearby soil and groundwater, that our city, county, regional and federal officials would be coordinating seamlessly given how much taxpayers have paid for these agencies and how many supposed disaster drills they conduct. 

Yet consider that all these public agencies together can’t find some water to put on a fire that’s been burning for a week or get people into the field to clean up yards.


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