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Fire's Fumes Force 4 Schools to Close

Public safety: Traffic is diverted over square mile as flames, toxic smoke rise from Santa Ana paint plant. No one is hurt.

September 25, 1997|BONNIE HAYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A chemical fire that erupted inside a paint-manufacturing plant early Wednesday sent 100-foot flames and plumes of toxic smoke into the air, prompting officials to shut down four schools, divert traffic for a square mile and hastily erect berms around two growing pools of contaminated water.

"It's been a real bear," said Santa Ana Fire Inspector Eric Evans. "We kept getting flare-ups after we thought we had it knocked down pretty good. It just doesn't want to quit."

When firefighters arrived at UPI Sealant Products, 1308 E. Wakeham Ave., about 2:40 a.m., towering flames were shooting from the roof, and several fireballs lit up the 16,000-square-foot building. Storage drums were heard exploding inside, said Steve Snyder, a Fire Department spokesman.

"It was an impressive blaze, like something right out of Hollywood," Snyder said. "It had obviously been burning a long time before we were called." No one was inside the building, which is in a light industrial and commercial area, but officials were initially worried about the nearly 1,500 residents in apartments on Minnie and Standard streets. However, evacuation plans were canceled when air readings showed "low levels of toxicity," Snyder said.

It wasn't immediately clear what types of chemicals and fumes neighbors would have been exposed to, fire officials said.

No injuries were reported, but fire officials called the UPI building "a total loss." They could not provide a dollar amount.

Road closures snarled traffic as hundreds of people gathered at corner gas stations and watched the procession, wondering when the roads would reopen.

Employees of 60 businesses surrounding the fire were also not allowed near the buildings.

"I can't go in there, or there, or there," said Manuel Ornelas, pointing to the blocked off streets. "But if I can't, then my boss probably can't either, so I'm thinking it will be OK."

Nearly 4,500 students at nearby schools were given the day off as a precautionary measure. Fire crews were spraying water on smoldering rubble well into the afternoon. "It has been a long battle," Evans said. "We're not even close to determining a cause yet."

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