Salvage Yard Fire Prompts Fear of Fumes; 200 Evacuated

Times Staff Writers

A fire broke out Sunday night at an Anaheim auto shredding firm with a long history of city and state code violations, and fear of toxic fumes forced evacuation of more than 200 people from a nearby hotel and convalescent home nearby.

Flames shot more than four stories high at Orange County Steel Salvage Inc. after the fire broke out about 7:25 p.m. in a waste pile at the auto salvage yard at 3200 E. Frontera St.

Anaheim fire officials called for evacuation of the Embassy Suites Hotel 300 yards away and the convalescent facility, the Carbon Creek Shores Apartments, 3060 E. Frontera, when strong Santa Ana winds blew smoke in their direction.

While most of the fumes from the fire apparently were nontoxic, fire officials feared that paint fumes from cars burned in the fire might reach toxic levels.


Evacuation ‘a Precaution’

They also were concerned because the fire spread to a small portion of a mammoth pile of auto shredder residue that is laced with toxic levels of the suspected carcinogen polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The evacuation was “a precaution,” Anaheim city spokeswoman Sheri Erlewine said.

The 60,000-ton mountain of shredder residue--known in the auto salvage industry as “fluff"--has been the center of a longstanding controversy between Orange County Steel owner George Adams Jr. and state, county and city officials, Erlewine said.


About 80 hotel guests and from 40 to 60 employees were evacuated from the hotel, which was closed for the night. Most of the guests were sent to the Embassy Suites Hotel in Buena Park, officials said.

Residents of the apartment complex, several of them confined to wheelchairs, were taken by county bus to a Red Cross evacuation center set up at South Junior High School in Anaheim. A total of 80 residents and employees had to be evacuated.

The salvage yard, located just south of the Riverside Freeway near Glassell Street, was two blocks away from a large apartment complex, although it was not evacuated.

Kevin Castleman, a resident in one of those apartments, said he and his wife were watching television when they smelled the smoke, which he said was so thick that “we thought it was the apartment building on fire, there was so much of it.”

Anaheim officials blocked off Glassell at Lincoln Street, six blocks away in the city of Orange, plus the Glassell exit from the Riverside Freeway.

The only injury from the fire was to a firefighter who suffered minor smoke inhalation.

The fire was under control by 9 p.m., but Anaheim and Orange County firefighters who fought the blaze did not expect it to be out until well past midnight.

The fire apparently was started by a spark when the gas tanks were being cut away from cars brought in for salvage Saturday, Adams said.


The fire spread to a 20-ton pile of shredded residue from autos and appliances. That pile had been chemically treated and is not considered toxic, Adams said.

But when the fire spread to a part of the 60,000-ton pile of PCB-laden waste, fire officials became concerned about possible toxic fumes.

It was just such a fire that city and county health officials had feared since Adams began storing the residue laden with PCBs, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals. When levels of PCBs were found in the waste pile two years ago, Robert Merryman, the county’s deputy director for environmental health, said the greatest threat was a smoldering blaze that could spread clouds of potentially toxic fumes.

Despite the threat and the finding of PCBs at levels above the federal maximum of 50 parts per billion, state and county health officials, a regional water agency and the City of Anaheim have been unable to remove the pile that has been accumulating since July, 1984.

“There has been a tremendous difficulty in trying to control the problem out here,” Erlewine said.

Under pressure from city officials, Adams agreed last year to clean up the 60,000-ton pile of toxic waste. Adams said Sunday night that he has a $250,000 study under way to take care of the problem. In the meantime, Adams said his staff has kept the toxic pile watered down to keep it from catching fire.

County officials have given Adams permission to dump the waste at the Prima Deshecha landfill in San Juan Capistrano, provided it is chemically treated and tested for toxicity.

Adams’ company was fined $2,000 last November for violating a court order to clean up its shredding yard, after state health officials complained that Adams had violated an agreement not to stockpile new shredded waste until the problem was solved.


Adams had to shut down temporarily last March after state officials sought a restraining order over the company’s new stockpiles. The company resumed its operation in September, after Adams installed a treatment system that makes the waste acceptable at county-operated dumps. However, Superior Court Judge Tully H. Seymour found that Adams was still not living up to agreements with the state over new stockpiles.

Five fire engines, a hazardous waste truck and officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District were on the scene Sunday night.