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Delayed evacuation of school near Port of L.A. fire angers parents

Los Angeles fire crews battle a wharf fire at the Port of L.A. where pylons soaked with creosote burned prompting concerns about air quality in the area.

Potentially hazardous smoke from the stubborn fire at the Port of Los Angeles prompted air quality advisories and the evacuation of one elementary school Tuesday.

Firefighters have been struggling to extinguish the blaze, which was contained but had spread to World War II-era pylons soaked in creosote. As the fire wore on through the day, shifting winds sent smoke and fumes generated by the burning creosote over more communities.

Earlier in the day, Los Angeles fire officials had recommended that two nearby schools -- St. Peter-St. Paul and De La Torre Jr. elementary schools, both in Wilmington -- close as a precaution. But L.A. Unified officials kept De La Torre Jr. open, saying in an email message to parents that they had determined toxic smoke from the wharf posed “no threat to the health of students or staff at the school.”

After the start of school, however, the decision was made to evacuate De La Torre. According to L.A. Unified, students were being taken by bus to Olguin High School in San Pedro. They were to be brought back to De La Torre shortly before 12:30 p.m. to be released.

The decision to go ahead with class in the morning angered some parents, who cited miscommunication and lack of concern for health impacts. One of them was Michaela Garcia, 38, of Wilmington, who was waiting for her 9-year-old son to get out.

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“It just seems to me the superintendent doesn’t care about the students,” Garcia said. “My son suffers from asthma.”

Sitting in a green minivan, she said she was going to take the family to El Segundo for the day until the air quality improved.

Throughout the morning, parents arrived wearing blue and white masks to pull their children from school.

Some children used their hands to cover their mouths and noses.

“They should have closed the school because of the toxic fumes,” said Leti Valencia, one of several concerned parents who pulled their children out of school.

In their notice to parents, school officials had said they planned to implement a “modified shelter in place” plan, keeping doors and windows shut to keep the smoke out.

No injuries have been reported as a result of the fire, which authorities said was sparked by a torch-welding operation.

The blaze was contained to a 50-by-800-foot area, but firefighters were impeded by multiple layers of heavy timber soaked in dark, tar-like liquid creosote that continued to smolder.

Los Angeles County public health officials advised people with certain health conditions to stay indoors and avoid any areas with smoke. They also issued an air quality advisory for:

  • Portions of south coastal areas of Los Angeles County including Carson, Long Beach, Wilmington, Signal Hill, Lakewood, Cerritos, Artesia, and Hawaiian Gardens
  • Portions of southwest coastal areas of Los Angeles County including Commerce, Compton, Bell Gardens, Downey, Paramount, Bellflower, La Mirada and portions of Cerritos, Whittier, Montebello and Pico Rivera
  • Portions of the north coastal areas of Orange County including Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa

Smoke may linger for hours, with firefighters prepared to battle the blaze into the evening. Active flames were extinguished about 8:30 p.m. Monday night, hours after it was started by a torch-welding operation. But fire continues to smolder within the lumber, forcing firefighters to use jackhammers and bulldozers to gain access.
Los Angeles firefighters used five fire boats, including a craft that delivers 38,000 gallons of water per minute, said LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey.

The port remained opened as crews worked to contain the tar that had leaked into the water, according to officials who gave a midday news briefing.

The smoldering blaze is the largest fire with the significant impact to the public since 1976, when a ship, the Sansinena, exploded while refueling, destroying buildings and shattering windows miles away.

Follow the reporters on Twitter: @LATvives and @VeronicaRochaLA


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