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Medfly Project Plans Office in Camarillo

October 12, 1994|JULIE FIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From a row of temporary beige trailers in an industrial section of Los Angeles County, leaders of the Cooperative Medfly Project plot strategies for some of the state's most unpopular wars.

Since 1974, they have tracked, trapped, dissected and set out to eliminate the most damaging of the winged pests that threaten California's $19.9-billion farming industry.

Now, using an arsenal that includes computers and aerial photographs, the project's members are making plans to attack the fly in Ventura County--site of the latest infestation.

"We've been working on the Medfly problem in Los Angeles for a number of years," said John Stewart, project manager for Ventura County's infestation. "We've got the people. We've got the expertise."

The project, which operates a hot line for the public, is also bracing for a flood of phone calls from agitated residents in Camarillo where aerial spraying is scheduled to begin tonight.

"Tomorrow, the number of calls are going to skyrocket," said Chris Tejada, supervisor of the project's phone bank. The project expects to open an office in Camarillo this week, the latest of 11 satellite offices statewide.

Conceived as a temporary marriage of federal, state and local officials, the project was set up to identify an outbreak, recommend a course of action and monitor the results.

With a fleet of 300 cars and a payroll of 450 permanent and seasonal employees, the project has the resources to mobilize workers and equipment quickly. The first priority is to determine the size and extent of an outbreak; the second is to try to stop it.

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Consider the response in Ventura County:

Within 48 hours of when the first two female Medflies were found, workers hung hundreds of sticky, yellow traps in trees. They checked bushels of fruit for maggots and larvae. And they carried backpack equipment to spray by hand a one-mile area around the site of the original find.

"Even one wild Medfly we want to know about," said project spokesman Doug Hendrix. "We had to pool all available resources when we found them in that area."

As of Tuesday, the traps had yielded a total of 61 more wild Medflies.

Project officials said they recommended aerial spraying over the Camarillo area because of the extent of the outbreak and its location.

Although it was set up to tackle short-term outbreaks, the Cooperative Medfly Project has operated almost nonstop in recent years. Since 1987, at least one new Medfly outbreak has appeared each year in areas south of Ventura County.

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And in 1993, after aerial and ground spraying failed to wipe out the pest in Los Angeles, the project launched a two-year experiment to breed the bug out of existence. Now, about 500 million sterile Medflies are released each week over Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties.

That eradication effort, which covers 1,500 square miles, is expected to cost $35 million this year.

No one knows yet what the tab will be for the Ventura County outbreak, although each night of malathion spraying will cost about $90,000, said Larry Hawkins, a project spokesman. All of the costs are split evenly between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

In April, the project moved to its present site within a massive complex of federal warehouses where airplane parts were assembled during World War II.

The project's headquarters consists of 15 temporary beige and brown buildings hobbled together with elevated walkways that are shielded overhead by cloth tarps.

In a long conference room at the project's headquarters--the closest thing to a strategy room--a large aerial photograph of northeast Camarillo sits on an easel. The photo's center is sprinkled with red dots, one for every wild Medfly trapped. Blue and orange dots cover a larger area indicating food lure and pheromone traps.

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Other buildings in the complex house labs devoted to identifying fly and larvae found in the Los Angeles Basin and, now, in Ventura County.

Inside the fly identification section, workers hunch over microscopes, probing dead flies with tweezers. The sterile Medflies, bred in Hawaii, emit a red dye when their heads are squeezed. If a fly does not glow red, it is examined by the project's on-site entomologist and then sent to Sacramento for confirmation as a wild Medfly.

Many of the project's veterans began as seasonal workers, joining the task force only when needed.

Kevin Talbert, supervisor of the identification section, said his first job with the project involved examining hundreds of dead flies under a microscope for hours at a time.

"At that time I remember dreaming about flies," he said. "I guess it could take the place of counting sheep."

A few trailers away, in a room with a heavy scent of citrus, five project employees spend their day slicing into ripened fruit collected from throughout quarantine areas. The fruit is examined about a week after it is collected to check for the presence of Medfly larvae.

Holding a ripe orange in his gloved hand, Ramon Leyva sliced through the top and examined the pinwheel of fruit that fell into his tray.

It is easy, he said, to spot fruit eaten away by the larvae. Finding such a fruit can cause a stir within the room that is sealed and kept at a cool temperature.

"After hours of slicing fruit, we get a big thrill out of it," he said.

For all the project's money and expertise, officials say the success of eradication efforts depends on the public. A single piece of tainted fruit could bring the Medfly back.

"We've got the technology to eradicate the fly, but there's always the issue of reintroduction," said Hendrix, the project spokesman. "It's not a program we can walk away from."

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