Tustin incurs hefty hangar fire cleanup costs while waiting on Navy funding

A stubborn fire burns the historic Navy north hangar in Tustin in November 2023.
On Nov. 7, a stubborn fire burned the historic Navy north hangar in Tustin. City officials have since tried to secure payments from the Navy for cleanup work.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Four months after a fire engulfed a cavernous wooden blimp hangar in Tustin, frustrations continue to mount over cleanup costs.

The devastating blaze began in the early morning hours of Nov. 7 and slowly burned out over 24 days before officials declared it “fully extinguished.”

By then, the historic World War II-era structure suffered significant damage as Tustin residents aired concerns about toxins spread by the fire after asbestos was detected in debris.


In the wake of the hangar’s ashes, Tustin has contracted $74 million for emergency services, including a soil, air and dust study that is expected to return results by April.

The city has incurred more than $90 million in cleanup costs, which would surpass Tustin’s general fund budget, spurring concerns over its fiscal solvency if help doesn’t come soon enough.

Tustin neighbors say they’ve received little communication about the risks they may face from toxins after a massive hangar fire.

Nov. 20, 2023

What’s left of the massive hangar, which rested on the site of a former Marine Corp Air Station, is owned by the U.S. Department of the Navy, which has paid $11 million, to date, under a cooperative agreement with the city.

Tustin hoped to approve another $13 million from the Navy during Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“We need that money, we need it now,” said Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard from the dais. “We need a whole bunch more right after that. Things are going to get a little spicy if we don’t get [it].”

Without the payment in hand, council members could only authorize staff to pay contractors once the money is actually received.

The hangar fire impacted 1,500 homes, 29 schools and 14,000 residents.

It spread debris containing asbestos and other toxic chemicals over a 6.5-mile-square-mile area, which led to the closure of Tustin-area schools and parks. Official urged residents to stay home with windows and doors shut in the days following the fire.

The city, which has already pulled $7.8 million from its reserves in partnering with the Navy in the recovery effort, expects asbestos debris cleanup and analysis to take several months before work is completed.

State legislators are looking for federal help with hangar fire cleanup costs.
State legislators are looking to ask President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress for help with hangar fire cleanup costs.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

City and county officials pursued a state of emergency declaration from Gov. Gavin Newsom, but the governor declined, citing, in part, the federal government’s responsibility to provide resources for the hangar fire cleanup.

Rep. Lou Correa and Rep. Young Kim sent Newsom a Jan. 25 letter urging him to reconsider his stance.

More recently, Tustin officials unsuccessfully sought a meeting with the governor while he appeared in Tustin on Mar. 2 to rally support for congressional candidate Joe Kerr.

The Tustin blimp hangar lost to fire Tuesday was a Hollywood icon, starring in major productions including ‘Pearl Harbor,’ ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Hindenburg.’

Nov. 7, 2023

But more immediate help may come by way of the state legislature.

On Monday, state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) introduced a resolution calling on President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress to approve $100 million in supplemental federal funds to aid in cleanup and mitigation efforts.

“At a minimum, this is a call to not allow this process to stall,” Newman said. “It urges the federal government to allocate sufficient funds to pay for the total cost of the cleanup.”

State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) also co-authored the nonbinding resolution, which will require approval from both houses of the state Legislature before asking for the help.

Lumbard acknowledged the effort during Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We’re hopeful that this extra pressure on the federal government will get us the resources that we need from the federal side,” he said.

“The Navy continues to lag and it has become urgent that they speed up,” Lumbard later added.

City officials also voted to extend a local emergency proclamation related to the fire during the council meeting.

The cause of the hangar fire remains under investigation by the Orange County Fire Authority and the Tustin Police Department.