2,000 in Fillmore Chased From Homes by Toxic Threat, the Second in One Week

Times Staff Writer

For the second time in a week, officials in this Ventura County agricultural town moved thousands of residents from their homes early Wednesday after a fire sparked fears of a toxic cloud.

About 2,000 residents were allowed to return to their homes at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday as firefighters hosed down a truck carrying a load of sawdust and rags soaked by paint and paint-thinner. The truck was bound from a Compton furniture factory for the Casmalia toxic waste dump in Santa Barbara County.

A half-mile section of Highway 126 was closed for more than seven hours as 60 firefighters and 12 fire companies battled the fire that spontaneously ignited while the driver dozed in the cab.

No injuries were reported.

"There was a lot of smoke, and it smelled funny," said 78-year-old Lou Riesgo, who watched the drama unfold from her front window. "Later I had a numb sensation under my nose and my stomach ached."

On May 4, about 5,000 Fillmore residents were roused from their sleep to flee the potentially toxic fumes of a fire that broke out at a garden-supply store in the town's business district.

"It was like, 'Oh brother, didn't we just do this?' " said Darryl Dunn, a senior deputy with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

Firefighters this week were especially concerned about the volatile compounds of toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, which can easily vaporize, causing nose and throat irritation and nausea, said Capt. Norm Stafford, of Ventura County Fire Department's Hazardous Incident Response Team, which was called to the fire.

Air and water samples taken at the scene did not contain contaminants, but firefighters built sand dikes to contain water used to douse the fire, said Pat Askren, chief of Fillmore's volunteer fire department. The company that was hauling the waste, Whittier Drum & Vacuum, will be asked to pay for the cleanup, he said.

The California Highway Patrol also planned to ask the Los Angeles district attorney's office to file a misdemeanor charge against the company for failing to clearly mark the truck as a carrier of hazardous waste, as required by law.

"If the driver was not available, the responders wouldn't have known what's on board," said CHP Officer Daniel McDermott. "Instead of rushing up to put out the fire, they know to put on a safety suit."

The driver, Mike Marisal, 31, of Wilmington was cited for failing to take the most direct route to the dump, which would have been along Highway 101, McDermott said. The furniture company, Good Bedrooms & Good Tables, was cited for failing to indicate hazardous cargo on a shipping bill, he said.

The fire, which blanketed the city's east side with smoke, was spotted at 2 a.m. by a sheriff's deputy traveling along Highway 126.

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