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Toxic Threat in Coachella Valley Eases; 2,000 Return

Times Staff Writer

Authorities allowed about 2,000 residents and workers to return to their homes and jobs Thursday after air and ground samples taken in the vicinity of a smoldering pesticide warehouse fire showed no contamination and after complaints from grape growers about potential economic losses.

Only an area within a one-mile radius of the fire--mainly barren fields--remained sealed.

Coachella Fire Department Chief John Rios said foam would be used to douse the flames Thursday night and complete control is expected by Saturday evening. Rios said removal of the more than 25 tons of pesticides at the site will begin sometime after the fire is out.

Samples From Plant

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A six-member team from a Fresno chemical waste firm, wearing protective gear, checked the pesticides Thursday, removing samples from the plant.

A nine-square-mile area had been evacuated following the Wednesday morning fire at a Wilbur-Ellis Chemical Co. warehouse in Thermal. The fire sent a towering cloud of toxic smoke over the area. Cause of the blaze remained undetermined Thursday.

The incident drove about 2,000 residents of Coachella, Thermal and Mecca from their homes. At least 1,100 of them sought refuge at Red Cross emergency shelters set up at Coachella Valley High School and the Date Festival Fairgrounds at Indio.

Fears of contamination of crops in this agricultural area prompted the Riverside County agricultural commissioner’s office to analyze samples of grapes grown near the fire. Those test results were not immediately available.

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Earlier Thursday, grape growers and produce shippers asked authorities to reduce the evacuation area so they could harvest crops and get them to Southern California markets in time for the July 4 weekend, officials said.

‘A Lot of Pressure’

“There’s a lot of pressure on us to shrink the evacuation area,” said Michael McConnell, spokesman for the county Fire Department. “They want to get their grapes in.”

Despite the pressure, however, McConnell said the all-clear decision was based purely on the air and ground samples studied.

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The evacuation left 200 to 300 acres of grapes unattended in temperatures reaching 110 degrees, leading growers to fear that some of their crops would rot in the fields.

“The economic impact is severe because June 26 and 27 are the most important shipping days of the year,” said Lionel Steinberg, president of David Freedman & and Co. a Thermal agricultural firm. “On those days we get our biggest orders from supermarkets and chain stores.”

In a special meeting, the Desert Grape Advisory Board, a growers’ group, voted Thursday to allow harvesting on Saturday in an effort to make up for lost time. Michael Bozick, spokesman for the board, said about 3,000 field workers have lost an estimated $150,000 in wages.

160 Seek Medical Aid

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About 160 people sought medical aid for nausea, cramps, eye irritation and respiratory ailments brought on by the noxious fumes, officials said. Of these, six were hospitalized in Indio, and all were reported to be in either fair or good condition.

The fire in Thermal followed a toxic blaze in Anaheim that forced temporary evacuation of 10,000 people earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) announced she is seeking quick action on a bill that would require businesses that handle hazardous materials to establish emergency response plans--including evacuation plans--and file updated inventories of dangerous chemicals with emergency officials.

The bill, which Waters said would directly address problems faced by emergency officials during the Anaheim and Thermal fires, would also require annual training of employees in the safe handling of hazardous materials.

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Joining Waters in support of the bill, scheduled for hearing by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on July 3, were representatives of the Federated Firefighters of California and the California State Firemen’s Assn., who said advance information on toxic chemicals is critical to firefighters responding during an emergency.

Times staff writers Michael Seiler in Los Angeles and Kim Murphy in Sacramento contributed to this story.


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