One of the iconic Navy blimp hangars at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station was destroyed in a blaze that began shortly after midnight. Dozens of firefighters were unable to extinguish the blaze in the massive structure – which together with the South Hangar are the largest wood structures west of the Mississippi River.
Ultimately, the shell of the enormous structure collapsed.
The Orange County Fire Authority decided against sending firefighters into the hangar due to the fear of collapse.
The fire was so substantial that the OCFA called in helicopter crews which normally combat large brush fires.
The cause of the blaze is still unclear.
The North Hangar was still the property of the Department of the Navy, but was long planned for conveyance to the County of Orange. Several reuse ideas had been floated over the years since the base was decommissioned in 1999. It was often used for commercials, blimp repairs and even the development of a hi-tech dirigible by Aeros Aeronautical Systems – intended for transporting supplies to US troops fighting in mountainous theaters like Afghanistan.
The OC Parks Department had planned to incorporate it into a regional park that also includes a large ice hockey and aquatics facility (operate din partnership with the owners of the Anaheim Ducks) but the collapse of a large portion of the North Hangar roof in 2013 put that plan permanently on ice. The roof collapse damaged the dirigible, leading the contractor to sue the Defense Department.
The future of the hangar had been in doubt ever since given the massive cost of repairing the roof of the 80-year old building. Neither the county nor the federal government had much appetite for footing the bill.
The two blimp hangars are icons for generations of Orange Countians who grew up when orange groves still covered much of the county, and OC was home to two Marine Corps air stations. USMC helicopters based in Tustin criss-crossing the county in formation were a familiar sight to residents.
The Tustin hangars are seventeen stories high and over 1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. The hangars were two of the largest wooden structures ever built. Designing and building the two structures in 1942, during wartime, on a hyper-accelerated schedule, and with a nearly all-wood design, is what earned the hangars their 1993 listing by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the
Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks of the 20th Century.
The hangars originally housed blimps used in WWII and later military helicopters. They were decommissioned in 1999. The Navy was in the process of handing them over to the City of Tustin pending environmental mitigation. The North Hangar sustained roof damage in October 2013 during a windstorm. The Department of the Navy stabilized the roof, but the building remained closed and has now been destroyed by today’s fire.
The hangars have been featured in prominent television shows and films, including
The X Files,
Pearl Harbor, and
Star Trek. They have also been featured in several major car commercials.
The hangars were encircled by fences but were not constantly monitored.