Prevention and Preparedness

The cause of last week’s toxic chemical fire in an Anaheim pesticide and fertilizer warehouse is still under investigation, but several conclusions can be reached from what already is known about “Orange County’s worst environmental emergency.”

One is that Orange County officials must keep better track of the chemicals present in the community by requiring disclosure of the location, kind and quantity of all chemicals being used and stored, and what health risks they might pose.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors, which in l983 considered but never passed such a disclosure law on hazardous materials, has reacted quickly to the Anaheim emergency. Last Tuesday, while the fire still smoldered, the board, at Supervisor Harriett Wieder’s urging, ordered the county Fire Department to find out what needs to be done to inventory all the hazardous materials in the county.

It’s an approach to which all 26 cities in the county should respond. At present, Irvine is the only city in the county that requires the reporting of hazardous materials.


The Anaheim fire was not an isolated, rare emergency. Toxic chemical fires and spills are become disturbingly commonplace, as the fire that broke out Wednesday near Coachella in Riverside County demonstrated. Fire officials said it was a “carbon copy” of the Anaheim fire. Other such chemical incidents must be anticipated. The county must waste no time in reducing the potential and becoming better prepared to handle them when they do occur.

Anaheim firefighters and the county Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team earned praise from federal Environmental Protection Agency officials for their expertise in handling the dangerous and tricky chemical fire. But local emergency teams need more help and support.

In addition to keeping an inventory of hazardous materials, city and county officials must have data-processing systems capable of storing such information and producing it immediately. Anaheim’s computer system does not now have that capability.

City and county officials must also be sure that the emergency response teams have the equipment they need to fight chemical fires. Local crews will never have the millions of dollars’ worth of special equipment that federal response teams carry, but there is no reason for a county hazardous material team to have to delay one of its operations for three hours, as it did in the Anaheim fire, because it didn’t have an adequate supply of gloves.


While city and county officials critique the Anaheim fire and decide how to correct the weaknesses in their chemical fire-fighting defenses, Orange County business firms can help by voluntarily submitting lists of the chemicals they have on hand. And, what’s even more important, they should, as good neighbors and employers, take extra precautions to be sure that the chemicals are properly marked and are stored as safely as possible. They owe that to their employees, emergency crews and the public.