Conceding that they greatly underestimated the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation in Southern California, state and local agricultural officials Thursday ordered at least 12 more rounds of aerial pesticide spraying over parts of a wide swath of largely residential neighborhoods that include northern Orange County.
The sprayings will be separated by one to three weeks, depending on the weather, a schedule that promises to extend the bothersome eradication effort well into spring.
"This is a much more serious infestation than anyone imagined," said regional Medfly Project director Leon Spaugy, who until now had insisted that the outbreak was well in hand.
Spaugy's view was changed during a three-day strategy session with a state scientific panel advising him on how to fight the outbreak, which began in August near Dodger Stadium.
In Orange County, the change in strategy will mean drastically stepped-up sprayings for two areas where fertile Medflies have been found. They are: a 10-square-mile section of Brea, La Habra and Fullerton, which was treated last week in the first malathion spraying in county history; and a separate, much smaller area of northwest La Habra, scheduled for initial spraying on Tuesday.
While some estimates put the possible number of sprayings at 16 for any one infested area, Orange County Agricultural Commissioner James Harnett said that the two North County regions should face eight to 10 sprayings in coming months.
"What we were doing up until now," Harnett said, "is to spray once and wait and see what happened. We were really in a holding pattern. . . . We now have a number of pieces that indicate the problem is much larger than we realized at the beginning, and we're attacking it from a region-wide angle.
"Without a sufficient supply of sterile flies (used to prevent reproduction of the insect population), we don't have any other options," Harnett said. "Hindsight's always great--we can look back and say what we should have done differently. But for now, we're just trying to get control of this situation."
As agricultural officials announced the new plan of attack, opposition to the pesticide spraying widened in the Southland, with some Los Angeles politicians suggesting legislative action to head off the plan. But elected officials in Orange County said that, as likely as the drastically increased sprayings are to rile residents, they may not have much choice.
"Wow! That sets me right back," Carrey Nelson, the newly installed mayor of Brea, said upon learning of the plans. "Nobody's going to be pleased with this, but if it's necessary, it's necessary. If you take a look at what this little monster can do to our agriculture, you realize it just has to be done."
Added Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors: "Agriculture is still a major product of ours, and there's obviously reason to worry. . . . But we'll be prepared within our competence and finances to support the actions that the experts are taking. I don't know what other recourse we have."
Similarly, some North County residents interviewed after the plans were announced seemed grudgingly resigned to the idea of having to cover their cars and withstand helicopter noise every few weeks in the battle against the pest.
"I hate to see them do it that often," said Louise McMillian of La Habra. "I don't particularly like the idea, but naturally, we'll go along with it."
Gov. George Deukmejian, pressured by farmers to act swiftly to wipe out the crop-destroying pest, backed the scientists and agriculture officials. Deukmejian was advised of the decision to extend the spraying schedule but did not require officials to consult him beforehand, a spokesman said.
The new plan of attack means about a million residents in a crescent-shaped infestation zone that stretches across roughly 250 square miles from the San Fernando Valley to northern Orange County can expect to have their neighborhoods sprayed by low-flying helicopters 12 to 16 more times.
The announcement marks a dramatic departure from previous statements by county agricultural officials. They had insisted that the 12 Medfly outbreaks since August represented isolated infestations that could be wiped out with one or two pesticide sprayings. Their position was challenged in recent weeks by the panel of scientific advisers, which came to see the eradication effort as failing to check the Medfly.
Members of the advisory panel, emerging from three days of meetings in El Monte, described the infestation as the most puzzling they have seen.
"We have no explanation as to why this is happening," said Roy Cunningham, a veteran U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who heads the five-member panel. "There is no doubt that we now have a widespread, serious infestation."
Cunningham said he expects the infestation to continue to expand as long as the weather stays warm. Ideal fly-breeding temperatures range between 75 and 80 degrees.
The Medfly experts said they were forced into the repeated rounds of pesticide applications because of a lack of sterile flies, which are released by the millions to breed fertile flies out of existence.
"Our goal has been to keep pesticide use to a minimum," said Isi Siddiqui, assistant director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. "But now we do not have the sterile fly resources and we have no alternative but to spray.
"Naturally we expect some opposition," said Siddiqui, a veteran of California's 1981 Medfly crisis, when delays in aerial spraying cost growers $100 million. "But our failure to spray now will result in a huge explosion of Medflies next spring. That would result in even bigger spray areas."
About 400 million sterile flies a week would be needed to fight the current infestation without repeated spraying. Only 130 million steriles a week are available from production facilities in Hawaii and Mexico.
Since 1981, a California Food and Agriculture sterile-fly-breeding facility in Hawaii had been able to keep up with the demand for flies during smaller state Medfly infestations. But officials could in "no way" anticipate that the Southland infestation would explode into an outbreak that would exhaust the supply of sterile flies, Siddiqui said.
About a dozen residents from neighborhoods targeted for more spraying confronted officials at a crowded news conference, challenging their claims that malathion poses to threat to health.
"We protest your blanket willingness to spray over and over again," said Virginia Johannessen, who lives in the Mt. Washington area of Los Angeles.
But Siddiqui cited a study prepared after the 1981 infestation that "did not show any adverse health effects" in parts of Northern California, which received up to 20 doses of malathion spray.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, whose East Los Angeles district is targeted for multiple doses of malathion, said he would require agricultural officials to explain their decision to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
"I thought Spaugy said he had this under control," Edelman said. "It doesn't sound like it's under control. I would seriously question whether you have to go 12 to 16 times over someone's area to get rid of the current infestation. It seems like this advisory committee has not come up with many creative solutions."
Edelman's comments seemed to break a political calm prevailing since the early months of the infestation. Like Deukmejian, most elected officials have chosen to keep quiet about the outbreak, saying they were confident experts could handle the matter.
Spaugy, who is the agricultural commissioner in Los Angeles in additional to his role at the helm of the Medfly project, said he and other officials had only recently become fully aware of the problem's magnitude.
"It's nice to be a Monday morning quarterback," Spaugy said. "Certainly had we known in August what we know in December, we would have drawn a circle around that part of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and just sprayed the whole area, probably a couple of times.
"We were following a protocol that had been very successful since 1987," Spaugy added, referring to a series of smaller infestations that were eliminated over the past decade. "We had successfully eradicated the fly in East Los Angeles, West Los Angeles and Van Nuys."
He said "everyone underestimated the enormity" of the current infestation.
During their press conference at the county agriculture commissioner's office in El Monte, officials said they have yet to dismiss an anonymous letter in which a group calling itself "the Breeders" claimed to be releasing Medflies. The letter, sent to politicians and newspapers, is under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Dates for the additional spraying have not been decided, but Spaugy said there will be no spraying over Christmas and weekends.