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Fire destroys massive, historic north hangar at Tustin Air Base

A U.S. Air National Guard fireman assigned to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing responds to a simulated emergency during an exercise at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, March 26, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristine Legate)

A powerful fire ripped through one of two 17-story hangars still standing at the long-shuttered Tustin Air Base early Tuesday morning, Nov. 7, leading to a catastrophic collapse of most of the iconic facility’s outer shell.

Dozens of Orange County firefighters responded when the blaze was first reported at the north hangar just before 12:55 a.m. By midmorning, however, they stood by watching the structure burn, helpless to stop its demise.

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Thanh Nguyen said sending firefighters into the building was too dangerous.

“The biggest fear is collapse and getting our firefighters injured,” Nguyen said.

The cause of the fire and where it began were not clear Tuesday.

No injuries were reported and firefighters did not believe anyone was inside the building when the fire broke out, Ngueyn said.

OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said early Tuesday the fire was expected to stretch across the length of the hangar, which will ultimately need to be demolished.

He said it could take a lengthy amount of time before the fire was out. When firefighters arrived, the blaze was intense.

“We expect the fire to continue … possibly until it gets to the other side of the hangar, and whether that be the end of the day, tomorrow — whether it stops at some point in between, we don’t know,” Fennessy said. “So at this point we’re standing back, keeping people and firefighters away and we’re watching.”

Fire officials confirmed early Tuesday they would allow the blaze to continue burning.

Just before 6:30 a.m., firefighters said the plan was to allow the hangar to collapse. Only after the roof came down would fire officials send in ground crews.

Fire officials sent helicopters and a Boeing CH-47 Chinook to help fight the blaze earlier Tuesday. Nguyen said helicopters are typically not used to douse a structure fire with water.

“This is not a regular fire,” Nguyen said.

But it later became clear dumping water on the structure was having no effect.

“It was felt that perhaps…it was possible for us to maybe slow it down and maybe get our ladder trucks in close enough to be able to slow it down,” Fennessy said. “That was not the case, so we cancelled them and returned them.”

Both hangars once housed blimps used in World War II and later provided cover for military helicopters.

The hangars were built in 1942, Fennessy said, and are two of the largest wooden structures ever constructed. They were named historic civil engineering landmarks in 1993.

The hangars have been featured in television and films, among them “JAG,” “The X Files,” “Austin Powers,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Star Trek.”

For some time, there were plans to raze the north hangar and use the space to construct homes and a regional park. But the plans were never realized, and in August 2021, the City Council voted to scrap the park and maintain the site.

Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard called Tuesday a sad day for the city. He described the two hangars as more than just structures.

“It’s a personal thing to a lot of (the) Tustin community,” Lumbard said. “They mean so much to the city’s past, to the region’s military history.”

Before the fire, Lumbard said, a decision hadn’t been made on the ultimate faith for the north hangar. It was damaged by heavy winds in 2013 and had been supported by two cranes.

“It’s just been kind of sitting there, damaged,” Lumbard said. “There’s community sentiment that wants to save the hangars, (but it’s) very, very cost prohibitive to repair those things and bring them up to commercial code.”

Lumbard said the city looks forward to collaborating on what ultimately will happen to the remaining hangar and the 85 acres surrounding it.

The city, he said, has recently invested in new fencing, adding signs and cutting overgrown vegetation in the area.

Councilmember Letitia Clark said the U.S. Navy needed to do more.

“I think we did everything we could in our power to really ensure that the site was clean and safe,” Clark said. “I think the hindsight, 20/20 part is really more on the Navy.”

Clark said the city has an operational agreement with the Navy, which owns both hangars.

“I hope that the Navy is now aware that there’s probably more that they could have done,” Clark said. “And, hopefully, there’s more they can do now in terms of helping us move forward with making sure the site is clean and that we can move forward to fully transitioning ownership of the (south) hangar from them to us.”

U.S. Navy officials could not be reached comment.

Tuesday morning, every few minutes, the dying structure emitted a loud, low rumble as the metal and wood inner lattice still holding up the curved roof started to give way, sending debris crashing down to the hangar floor in burning heaps.

By 9 a.m., fire crackled along the edges of the gaping hole now making up nearly half of the old hangar. Flames ripped through the interior, bursting through the hangar’s roof in spots.

Amid billowing columns of brownish, white smoke, pieces of the hangar’s outer covering were ripped from its walls. The pieces twirled up in the air like confetti before raining back down on the fields and streets around the building.

The loud snaps and pops of flames and the explosions periodically rumbling through the old structure served as the death throes of one of Orange County’s most iconic buildings.

Like giant soda cans tipped over in the sand, the twin, hulking hangars at the air base have sat here for longer than many locals have called Orange County home.

The air base was one of the first sights Curtis Schneider, 61, could remember when his family first drove through the area after moving here in the 1970s.

In a T-shirt, shorts, sandals and sunglasses, Schneider stood just behind the open driver’s side door of his car, holding his phone up to capture the destruction. When one loud blast roared from the burning building, he tensed up.

“Whoa!” he said, as others in the group of about 50 onlookers hooted and hollered. Still watching, Schneider took a quick drag from his vape pen.

He recalled standing on the floor of the hangar beneath its towering walls for different events over the years, when visitors were still allowed inside.

“We saw car shows in there, helicopter shows,” Schneider said. “We had some good times in that hangar.”

Tammy Murphy, 65, looked on in horror and wonder as decades of Southern California history burned to the ground in front of her. Murphy stood with her two grandchildren just behind a chain-link fence about a quarter of a mile from the hangar.

“Oh my god — so many emotions,” she said. “These were here when I was a kid growing up.”

She remembered seeing the Blue Angels perform here. Her father was in the military and would take her to shop at the base grocery store.

“It was bustling,” Murphy said, before the facility was closed for good in the 1990s.

Local officials tried for years to develop a plan for what to do with the hangars. It’s a history Schneider said he knew well. He answered his cellphone and spoke to the caller on speaker phone.

“That’s a historic building,” the caller said.

Schneider replied: “It was.”

Red embers could be seen along the remaining roof edge, with and smoke billowing up.

Lori Spiak, a lifelong Tustin resident, gasped at the sight.

Spiak said she hopes the south hangar is maintained — she and her friends have talked about how it could be turned into a concert venue or a soundstage.

Adora Cole said the hangar has been a fixture in her life since she was a child; she remembers Marines going by in with their pickups trucks when it was an active base.

“My heart is just broken,” Cole said. “It’s so close to home. It’s very, very upsetting.”


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