Giant WWII Airship Hangar Decimated By Raging Fire

A historic World War II-era airship hangar in California caught fire in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Despite attempts to extinguish the flames, firefighters have been forced to abandon their efforts — allowing the fire to run its course. The exact cause of the fire has yet to be identified by law enforcement, and no injuries have been reported.

Hangar 1, also known as the North Hangar or ‘Building 28,’ is part of the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Tustin in Orange County. A three-fire alarm was issued just before 12:55 A.M. local time, Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) Capt. Thanh Nguyen told reporters earlier today. Over 70 Orange County firefighters on 11 engines have been involved in attempts to save the hangar, one of the largest free-standing wooden structures ever built. Building 28 will eventually be demolished, per the OCFA, although nearby Hangar 2, also known as the South Hangar or ‘Building 29’ appears to have been unaffected by the fire.

When crews arrived on the scene, the hangar was completely engulfed in flames internally. As the fire continued to spread, parts of its massive arched roof began to collapse.

One of the key challenges for fire crews was a lack of water on the property. ABC reports that firefighters were forced to extend long hoses from hydrants on nearby streets. In a bid to aid personnel on the ground, Southern California quick response (QRF) helitanker 47 was subsequently directed to the scene. The video below, captured in infra-red from quick response helicopter 76, shows helitanker 47 dumping 3,000 gallons of water on the hangar. 

Despite this, by 8:30 A.M. local time, the fire had consumed around half of the entire structure, The Orange County Register reports. Ultimately, the OCFA decided that continuing attempts to save the hangar earlier today posed too great a safety risk for firefighters.

“There’s literally nothing we can do about it at this point,” OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said to reporters at an earlier press conference. “We can’t get close enough to that building without concern for it collapsing on our firefighters.”

Ultimately, the hangar will need to be demolished, Fennessy indicated. “It’s a sad day for the city of Tustin, for all of Orange County,” he said.

“The hangar continues to burn with [the] collapse of sections at a time,” the OCFA tweeted at 9:49 A.M. local time. “Because of [the] extremely dangerous conditions, firefighters will monitor to ensure the fire remains contained. Firefighters will remain on scene and in the area throughout the day.”

The OCFA is advising local residents to stay away from the scene and to keep windows and doors closed to avoid smoke inhalation, with the fire expected to continue burning for several days before eventually extinguishing.

An official investigation into what caused the fire has also been opened, according to local reporting

Building work on the hangars, as part of what was originally known as the Santa Ana Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) Base, began in April 1942. Both hangars, measuring some seventeen stories high, 1,000 feet long, and 300 feet wide, were designed as blimp hangers in support of the Navy’s coastal patrol efforts during World War II. Long after the airship era, what became known as MCAS Tustin served as a major facility for Marine helicopter training and operations on the Pacific Coast, and has played a role in many major U.S. military operations from 1942 to 1992. On July 3, 1999, MCAS Tustin was officially closed. You can read more about the history of the hangars here.

Hangar No. 1 under construction in 1942. U.S. Navy

Both hangars are presently owned by the Department of the Navy. Hangar 1 has been closed for over a decade following a partial collapse of its roof in October 2013. Hangar 2, on the other hand, is currently undergoing an evaluation to determine its future use, and plays host to certain events, per the City of Tustin. The hangars are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. You can read more about historical and existing plans to develop MCAS Tustin here and here

Outside of their important place within the local community, the hangars have also featured in a number of Hollywood films and television shows over the years — including JAG, The X Files, Austin Powers, Pearl Harbor, and Star Trek. They have also been featured in several major car commercials.

One of the two hangers seen in Michael Bay’s 2001 film Pear Harbor. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc

Whatever the cause of the fire, the loss of Hangar 1 represents a significant blow to local Tustin residents, history buffs, and cultural aficionados alike. 

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

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Oliver Parken Avatar

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent's Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone's military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.