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Cities Fretful as O.C.'s Fire Ant War Ends

March 08, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Gary Thompson's experience with fire ants sounds like something out of a low-budget horror flick. As the Rancho Santa Margarita councilman was watering his front lawn one afternoon five years ago, he was suddenly attacked by thousands of angry red fire ants.

"They were vicious," he said. "They came right out of a mound and were all over my body in seconds. I guess I must have disturbed their mound. If that happened to any little kid, they could be in serious trouble."

So when Thompson learned last month that Orange County is pulling the plug on its 4-year-old fire-ant control program, he understood firsthand what residents could soon be facing. "It's one of those things that could literally come back and bite if you don't finish the job," he said.

First discovered in Orange County in 1998, fire ants were living in an estimated 19,000 sites by 2002. Workers attacked them with a chemical that stops the insects from metabolizing food, causing them to starve. Concentrating on particularly hard-hit areas such as Rancho Santa Margarita, Los Alamitos and Cypress, vector-control officials knocked out more than 95% of the colonies they treated and predicted that eradication was possible by 2005.

Thompson's city was one of 27 in the county that pledged money to keep the fire-ant control program afloat. But it was not nearly enough, and the Orange County Vector Control District voted Feb. 19 to end the program for lack of funds.

"We just couldn't get enough money from the private sector and other agencies like the water district and waste management," said Mike Hearst, spokesman for the district. So what now? County and city officials are almost afraid to ask.

Unchecked, the pests will proliferate because they have no known natural enemy, experts say. They worry that California will become another Texas, which is overrun with the imported ants, known for fierce bites that leave painful, itchy welts. In parts of Texas, residents barbecue on cul-de-sacs for fear of getting ambushed by the ants in backyards. Agriculture officials are concerned that if the ants become entrenched, they could devour wildlife and crops.

Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the state-sponsored fire ant battle was abandoned because of California's dire budget situation. Last fall, the department canceled funding contracts with Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the Coachella Valley.

The fire ant infestation is worst in Orange County and Palm Springs, he said.

"The problem hasn't gone away. Unfortunately the funding has gone away," Lyle said. "A positive part is that the fire ant is a slow-moving pest that doesn't spread quickly. So if counties can reassess the significance of the program and find alternative funding, there is still every chance they will able to maintain and sustain effective [eradication] programs."

In south Orange County, where heavily irrigated lawns and golf courses provide perfect breeding grounds, city officials are nervously looking ahead to the summer, when the menacing ants begin multiplying in warm, humid conditions.

"In my mind, the fire-ant control program should be prioritized over some of the recreational services we provide," Thompson said. "It could affect your property values and your ability to do outdoor activities. It can affect your quality of life pretty quickly."

Mission Viejo Councilman Lance MacLean said his city isn't running from the ants.

"It's not an option not to deal with them," said MacLean, whose city pledged more than $5,000 to keep the county program alive. "We'll clearly have to find the money and hire a private pest firm. We may have to say we just can't fund that extra [police] officer -- we need to take care of the fire ants."

The county had funded the fire-ant battle since October, soon after the Department of Food and Agriculture announced it was canceling a $5.2-million-a-year statewide eradication program to help reduce the state's budget deficit. The district contracted with the county to handle the fire-ant program. But with much of their budget being used to fight the West Nile virus, vector officials said they had a hard time supporting a program that they weren't supposed to be funding in the first place.

The clock is ticking, but officials say they have a little time before they fall too far behind. During the cold winter months, red fire ants are less active. That should give county and city officials a few months to explore their options.

Hearst said the options aren't pretty. "There is 'Do nothing and hope for the best,' " Hearst said. "We can pray the state can come back and reallocate funding. Or cities can come up with their own solution."

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