WWII-era hangar burns in Tustin

WWII-era hangar burns in Tustin

(LA Times)- For more than 80 years, two massive domed hangars loomed over Tustin’s southern edge, a relic of Orange County’s military history hemmed in by an expanding suburban landscape that replaced orange groves and lima bean fields with shopping centers and tract homes.

Reaching 17 stories high, more than 1,000 feet long and nearly 300 feet wide, the cavernous wooden structures at the now-defunct Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin once housed military helicopters and blimps armed with machine guns and bombs, so dwarfed by the buildings they looked like toys sitting inside.

The hangars took about six months to build on an accelerated schedule in 1942 as the U.S. ramped up its war effort after entering World War II. But on Tuesday, as smoke poured into the sky from a massive fire, the north hangar took just hours to burn before firefighters decided to let it go.

The north hangar, near Valencia Avenue and Armstrong Road, caught fire just before 1 a.m. Flames chewed through the historic building throughout the day, collapsing section after section. What remains of the structure will eventually be demolished, fire officials said.

Thick smoke billowing from the hangar, which is owned by the U.S. Navy, was visible across the region. The sounds of the wood lattice that held up the roof collapsing echoed throughout the surrounding neighborhoods like tidal waves crashing along the shore.

The hangars were built mostly from Oregon Douglas fir, 2 million board-feet of wood that was treated with metallic salts as a fire retardant. But the size and construction of the structure made fighting the blaze a challenge.

Seventy OCFA firefighters on 11 engines and five fire trucks responded to the fire, which was so large and complex that officials deployed helicopters, including a Chinook used in wildfires, to drop water on the huge structure.

But because of the “dynamic nature of the fire, and the imminent danger of collapse,” firefighters planned to allow the mostly wooden hangar to fall on its own before crews move in to extinguish the fire, Fennessy said.

Officials estimated the structure could burn for several hours, if not days.

Officials are investigating what caused the blaze.