Fire officials in Orange County, California are poring through the smoldering remains of a 1940s-era airship hangar, trying to determine what set it ablaze Tuesday morning. The fire at the north hangar of the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin was so massive that it garnered a response of three-alarms, equating to 70 firefighters, 11 engines, five trucks, and water-dropping helicopters.
The building, constructed mostly of Oregon Douglas fir, burned rapidly. According to captain Drew Garcia, Orange County Fire Authority, it was too dangerous to send firefighters into the structure because of its free-standing design. “Structural members were breaking, causing the building to collapse,” he said, adding the only way to safely fight the fire was to allow the building to come down. “We were putting water on it throughout the day.” He added that there was no damage to the south hangar or other buildings remaining on the property.
According to social media, dozens of people turned out to watch the mammoth building burn. The loss of the iconic structure struck a chord with many, as the base is linked with memories. Some of the posts made on the platform formerly known as Twitter showed the hangar coming down. The sound of the building collapsing made a noise like the roar of the ocean as flaming debris tumbled to the ground under the watchful eye of firefighters.
Now city and county officials are trying to determine if the smoke, ash, and wreckage of the building pose a health hazard to the community.
Over the years, much of the land of the former military base has been repurposed into tract homes, and Tuesday officials warned nearby residents to close their windows and not use air conditioning units that draw air into the buildings as to not breathe in the smoke.
The South Coast Air Quality Management put out a warning stating that the debris and ash coming from the fire were tested yesterday and showed the presence of asbestos. The South Coast AQMD noted the agency “also collected air samples near the hangar and in nearby communities which are being analyzed in our laboratory for gaseous air toxics, such as benzene. In addition, mobile monitoring was conducted for metals such as lead and arsenic.” As of publication, the results of the measurements had not yet been released. Updates can be found aqmd.gov.
The hangars are approximately 1,072 feet long by 292 feet wide and 192 feet—or 17 stories—tall. Arranged in a V formation, they were designed to hold six blimps at a time.
At the end of World War II, the Navy phased out airship operations and the base was converted to a Marine Corps Air Station used for helicopter operations. In the 1990s, military operations were phased out and the base slated for closure, although many of the buildings still remained in use for civilian aviation purposes. The former air base with its classic 1940s architecture, including a control tower, was a popular location for shooting Hollywood movies and local television commercials.
In 2013 the north hangar was damaged in a windstorm and the Navy spent $3 million making repairs. Over the years, the city has entertained discussions about what to do with the north hangar which technically belongs to the Navy, although the land it sits on is under city jurisdiction. Among the suggestions are turning the area into a concert venue or making it a park.
The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Captain Garcia notes that the hangar is still the property of the United States Navy. “We will mitigate and stabilize the incident, and when the time is right we will hand it over to the proper authorities,” he said.