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3 May, 2013 16:30

Toxic pesticides burn up in California wildfire

Toxic pesticides burn up in California wildfire

Hazmat teams are trying to contain a massive California wildfire that is threatening 2,000 homes. Locals are being warned not to inhale the smoke – especially since highly toxic pesticides have caught fire and are releasing dangerous chemical fumes.

The wildfire erupted in Southern California at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, forcing residents near Camarillo to evacuate their homes. The raging fire has already burnt more than 12 ½ sq. miles, and 15 homes have already sustained damage. A group of recreational vehicles in a mobile home park have been completely destroyed. About 2,000 other homes are at risk of destruction as the flames lick the edges of communities 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. A small, local university canceled classes for the week as the fire threatened its campus, AP reports.

And while smoke inhalation is never healthy, the fumes of this wildfire are particularly dangerous: fire officials on Thursday warned that a store of highly toxic pesticides caught fire at an agricultural property in Laguna Farms, near the university campus. Fire officials have sent out health warnings, urging residents to avoid inhaling smoke – even if no flames are nearby.

A fire fighting helicopter comes in to make a water drop behind some home threatened by a wildfire on May 2, 2013 in Newbury Park, California. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian)

Inhaling pesticides can burn internal organs and harm the respiratory system, making it difficult to breathe. Doing so may also cause the pesticides to become absorbed in the bloodstream and disperse throughout the body. Severe cases of pesticide poisoning can lead to loss of reflexes, inability to breathe, unconsciousness or death. External exposure to pesticides can also burn through skin and eyes, in some cases causing blindness.

Firefighters in hazmat suits are currently dealing with the hazardous materials, and the Ventury County Fire Department is assessing the damage throughout the day on Friday, fire spokesman Bill Nash told AP. Wind gusts contributed to the spread of the fire, and unusually dry conditions have caused it to spread quickly. Friday “may be the hottest day of the week, and the humidity we do expect to plummet,” Nash told NBC.

“We’re faced with a situation right now where the vegetation on the hillsides, the moisture level is what we typically see in August.”

The Springs Fire rages along the Pacific Ocean north of the Ventura County Line May 2, 2013. (Reuters / Jonathan Alcorn)

Ventura Country Fire Department spokesman Tom Kruschke warned the public that the fire is still growing rapidly, and that residents should keep away from it.

“We have conditions that are very dramatic, very dangerous for firefighters. This fire is growing,” he said. “We are asking members of the public to be very aware: This is very dangerous. This is still a moving fire. If you were asked to evacuate, it will be a while before you are allowed in. And if at one point you are uncomfortable, please leave the area. It’s not safe to stay.”

As of 2 a.m. Pacific time, the fire was within “seven or eight miles” of Malibu, Nash told NBC. But he reassured his team’s commitment to containing the flames. As of early Friday, the fire had reached about 10,000 acres and was 10 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

“We’ve got hot, dirty, unglamorous firefighting work going on right now, guys with shovels trying to scratch out lines on the ground,” he said. “We’ve got those guys on these steep hillside in the dark with nothing but the light of the fire and a flashlight.”

A firefighter battles to protect a CalTrans Maintenance Station and Fuel Depot from the Springs Fire near Pacific Coast Highway and the Los Angeles County Line at Malibu, California, May 2, 2013. (Reuters / Patrick Fallon)

Meanwhile, residents who left their homes near Camarillo were waiting at evacuation centers. Mark Brewer, a 52-year-old man, told AP that the risk of wildfires is one that he always expected.

“This is a part of being in Southern California, just like earthquakes,” he said.

But it is rare that large stockpiles of pesticide go up in flames and threaten the health of surrounding communities. The last major pesticide fire occurred in June 1985 in Anaheim, California, after a warehouse storing organophosphates and carbamates went up in flames. The fire caused the evacuation of about 11,500 people and the closing of a freeway as the Coast Guard toxic waste team was called in to extinguish it. 

Fire officials are still investigating the cause behind this week’s fire in Southern California.