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Most Oppose Aerial Spraying to Combat Ants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County residents by a 2-1 majority disapprove of spreading pesticide from the air to stem the invasion of stinging fire ants, a Times Orange County Poll concluded.

As California gears up to grapple with the newly discovered pest, the poll of 600 county residents last week showed 58% oppose aerial use of pesticides. Only 30% approve of the technique, which has been considered by state agricultural officials, along with on-the-ground pesticide use.

The poll also found residents do not appear overly alarmed by the fire ant threat, with only 16% calling themselves “very concerned” by the invasion, and fully half saying they are “not too concerned.”

The poll was conducted Feb. 26 through March 2, as the Davis administration weighed how to deal with what appears to be the first major West Coast infestation of the red imported fire ant.

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A state spokesman, told of the poll’s findings Sunday evening, was taken aback that more people were not worried about the fire ant problem.

“This is our No. 1 concern. It is the highest concern that we have as a department statewide right now,” said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. He was not surprised, however, by the disapproval of aerial pesticide use, he said.

Although the state has prepared a draft plan for combating the fire ant, Hidalgo said he could not divulge the results because they were not final. He did say the state has not ruled out on-the-ground pesticide use.

The fire ant is well-known throughout the Southeast and Texas for painful stings and damage to agriculture and wildlife. Its stings can prove fatal to the small number of people who are allergic. The ant also is known to kill some native ants, insects and baby birds, stirring fears among biologists that it could threaten wildlife diversity in the region.

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In Southern California, fire ants have infested at least 50 square miles of Orange County and have been found in parts of Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

The state agriculture department had expected to complete a fire ant plan by the end of February, but it remains under review by top state officials.

State experts and others have considered aerial or ground spreading of an ant growth inhibitor known as fenoxycarb in hopes of controlling or even banishing the ants from the state.

Some experts believe that aerial spreading is the only hope of eradicating the ant. But some biologists have questioned whether the chemical could have side effects, noting that it can be highly toxic to some fish and aquatic invertebrates. A number of scientists have urged that if pesticide is used, it should be applied directly to areas with ant mounds, not sprinkled from the air.

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State officials are under pressure because fire ants could start mating in April or May in the California climate. Fire ants in other states often begin mating after warm rainfall, and similar conditions could be triggered in Orange County by landscape sprinkler systems, Hidalgo said.

Hildago emphasized that although some people polled may not be deeply concerned about the fire ant, state officials consider it a threat.

“If we decided this was not a concern to residents and it’s not a concern to us, it would be irresponsible,” Hidalgo said. “We still have to look at the long-term effects, and the effects to the entire state.”

The strongest disapproval of aerial spreading was voiced by residents polled in northern Orange County, with 62% opposed to an aerial approach, compared with 51% in South County. The largest ant infestations are concentrated in South County and in the county’s northwest portion in Cypress and Los Alamitos, although colonies of ants have been found sprinkled throughout the county.

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Most residents in both north and south Orange County are “not too concerned” about fire ants. A larger percentage of respondents in South County called themselves “somewhat concerned,” compared with those in North County.

In follow-up interviews, several respondents expressed concern about sprinkling pesticides from the air.

“I think we have enough junk in the air,” said Lucy Curran, 43, of Placentia, who would prefer more selective treatment of ant infestations. “I’d rather take a more conservative approach, and then go from there.”

Kevin Casserly, 50, of Tustin suspects the media have blown the fire ant problem out of proportion. He would support ground application of pesticide but not aerial spraying.

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“Just the smog kills enough people as is,” Casserly said. “We don’t need to put more things in the air.”

Costa Mesa resident Sean Valentine, 30, said aerial spreading of pesticide “concerns me a little bit more than the fire ants. I just don’t appreciate the government dumping chemicals over everything and everyone just because of an ant that doesn’t seem too threatening.”

But Laguna Niguel resident John Dornan, 57, is more worried about the ant than pesticides.

“From what I can read, from what is going on in places like Texas, it seems to be a pretty serious situation,” Dornan said. “I have a nice backyard, and I’d like to be able to use it.”

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Dornan thinks that aerial spraying in areas known to be infested could be a good idea. “What you’re looking at is the potential of changing the way of life in California,” he said. “Something has to be done.”

To report suspicious-looking ants or learn more about them, call state officials at (800) 491-1899. More information can be found on the state Department of Food and Agriculture Web site: https://www.cdfa.ca.gov

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

No Ant Panic Here

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Four in 10 Orange County residents say they have seen or heard about red imported fire ants in their communities, according to a new Times Orange County poll. But most are not too concerned with the invasion and oppose aerial spreading of pesticides to control the stinging insects.

* How concerned are you about the fire ant invasion in Orange County?

Very concerned: 16%

Somewhat concerned: 33%

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Not too concerned: 51%

*

State officials are currently considering aerial spreading of pesticides over Orange County to control the fire ants. Do you approve or disapprove of this action?

Approve: 30%

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Disapprove: 58%

Don’t know: 12%

Source: Times Orange County Poll


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