Pesticide Fire Routs 2,000, Closes Riverside Freeway
Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated from a mile-square area of north Anaheim Sunday when a smoldering fire in a pesticide warehouse sent potentially deadly fumes spewing into the air, triggering fears of an explosion.
No serious injuries were reported, but a motel, a trailer park, a restaurant and a 260-unit apartment complex were emptied, a mile-long section of the Riverside Freeway was closed for four hours, and Anaheim City Manager William Talley declared a state of emergency in the area.
Anaheim Fire Department investigator Mike Doty said the 5,000-square-foot warehouse contained four tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a stockpile of organophosphates and numerous pressurized barrels of methyl bromide and liquid petroleum gas.
The ammonium nitrate, and the gas are potentially explosive, he said, while the methyl bromide can be highly toxic.
By late afternoon, the methyl bromide and gas containers had been removed from the building, and Fire Department spokesman Jeff Bowman said firefighters were beginning to remove smoldering pallets, which were later extinguished in the open air. A minor flare-up at about 6 p.m. delayed plans to have the situation fully under control by 8 p.m. Sunday, almost ensuring that residents would not allowed to return home until sometime this morning.
The Red Cross said it was prepared to care for as many as 5,000 people in an emergency shelter set up at Katella High School.
Doty said the blaze was reported at 10:44 p.m. Saturday in the office of the Larry Fricker Co., a pesticide sales firm in the 1400 block of North State College Boulevard, near the Fullerton border.
Anaheim fire units contained the flames almost immediately, he said, but were unable to extinguish the fire because it was smoldering in stacks of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals.
Fumes from the fire appeared to be dangerous, he said, so the motel, restaurant and mobile home park were evacuated and the freeway, about a block from the fire, was closed while foam and other fire retardants were used by Anaheim specialists assisted by hazardous materials experts from the Orange County and Huntington Beach fire departments.
“All these methods were somewhat effective but did not quite do the job. The fire was still smoldering and giving off fumes,” Doty said.
By morning, although the freeway was reopened, the State College Boulevard on- and off-ramps remained closed.
A wider evacuation was ordered at about 11 a.m. Sunday after the fumes proved fatal to a cockateel perched beside a window at a nearby apartment complex. Firefighters also checked all commercial and industrial areas in the vicinity to make sure they were unoccupied.
During the afternoon, hazardous materials experts wearing astronaut-like anti-contamination suits entered the building to assess the situation and decide which dangerous materials to remove.
They said that only one of the methyl bromide drums had ruptured and that the fumes had dissipated harmlessly, although eight people, including two California Highway Patrol officers, four California Department of Transportation workers and two firefighters, were briefly treated at nearby hospitals for suspected exposure to the fumes.
Bowman said the city has hired a Long Beach chemical transport firm to handle the cleanup of the plant when the fire is finally extinguished. Cause of the blaze was still under investigation.