Three helicopters began spraying malathion-treated bait over a 35-square-mile area of West Los Angeles Thursday night in the first step of an attempt to eradicate what county agriculture officials call a “significant infestation " of Mediterranean fruit flies.
The helicopters lifted off from Santa Monica Airport at 8:15 p.m. and headed for the target area that included portions of Culver City and Beverly Hills. Officials estimated that it would take six to eight hours to complete the spraying.
The effectiveness of the aerial assault on the Medfly will be measured daily when agricultural officials check traps in the Palms area of West Los Angeles, the “epicenter” of the infestation, said Los Angeles County Agriculture Commissioner E. Leon Spaugy.
“In the event that we don’t find any non-sterile flies, we will consider this application a success, " Spaugy said.
If a scientific advisory committee believes it is appropriate, the next step in the battle against the Medfly would be the release of millions of sterile fruit flies over 60 days, Spaugy said. The sterile flies would mate with non-sterile flies and produce no offspring.
If the committee decides against releasing sterile flies, officials would have to wait seven to 10 days before sending the helicopters up again to spray more malathion in the area bounded by Santa Monica Boulevard on the north, La Brea Avenue on the east, Slauson Avenue on the south and the San Diego Freeway on the west.
This Mediterranean fruit fly is considered an extreme risk to California’s $14-billion agricultural industry, the largest industry in the state. The current eradication effort, including Thursday’s spraying, has cost about $2 million thus far, Spaugy said.
Agricultural officials said concerned residents have swamped a hot line with calls. Many callers complained that they had not received adequate notification of the spraying.
Officials apologized and explained that there had been little time to give notice because they had to move quickly after about 40 flies had been found in traps on the Westside since Sept. 26.
“The sooner it’s done, the better,” said Peter Kurtz, senior medical coordinator for the state Food and Agriculture Department. “If we get them before they leave the area, we’ll have a lot smaller problem to deal with. We’re working (against) an insect’s biology. We’re under the gun.”
Fog Halted First Flight
The spraying originally had been scheduled for 10 p.m. Wednesday but it was postponed because fog made it hazardous for the helicopters to fly.
Many of the 100,000 residents in the targeted area used the extra time to get themselves, their businesses and their pets ready for the spraying.
Some rushed to hardware stores to buy covers to protect their cars, while others took their pets indoors or to veterinarians who promised an indoor haven.
Some residents left the area entirely before the scheduled aerial spraying, even though state and county officials said humans, pets and even ants and cockroaches had little or nothing to worry about.
“I don’t have a garage, so I need a cover to protect my car,” said Johnny Cox of Los Angeles, who did not want any malathion droplets to endanger his custom 1984 Cadillac El Dorado. “I figure a cover is cheaper than a paint job.”
Cox was not the only one who figured it that way.
Allan Goldman of Culver City Hardware sold about 50 tarpaulins and drop cloths in the last several days. That did not include pieces from 30 giant rolls of plastic that he cut off for other customers.
“People say a lot of chain stores are out of the stuff,” he said.
Goldman, a San Fernando Valley resident, had already survived Medfly spraying in his own neighborhood.
“I thought to myself if that ever happens around my store, I’ll be ready,” he said, pondering his shelves of rapidly disappearing stock. “Then the damn thing happened so fast I didn’t have time to get ready.”