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Army Corps of Engineers demolishes Vandenberg houses

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Several playground areas like this one outside a house in the former Vandenberg East housing area were donated to the Lompoc Unified School District. The school district paid to have contractors remove the playground equipment and install it at area schools. (U.S. Air Force/courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Several playground areas like this one outside a house in the former Vandenberg East housing area were donated to the Lompoc Unified School District. The school district paid to have contractors remove the playground equipment and install it at area schools. (U.S. Air Force/courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A construction worker hoses down a section of a house to keep dust from flying as it is torn down in August. This section of the former Vandenberg East housing area was demolished during the Phase one through Phase Three demolition project just outside Vandenberg.  (U.S. Air Force/courtsey photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A construction worker hoses down a section of a house to keep dust from flying as it is torn down in August. This section of the former Vandenberg East housing area was demolished during the Phase one through Phase Three demolition project just outside Vandenberg. (U.S. Air Force/courtsey photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- They stood for nearly 50 years outside the gates of Vandenberg. Now - through a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District - 259 of 663 houses are now gone.

The homes in East Housing of Vandenberg have been demolished as part of a contract awarded to the Los Angeles District. The project for phases one through three was awarded in September 2006 and began in February. Before demolition, however, there were environmental factors to be addressed.

"We had to perform the abatement of hazardous material before we began demolition," said Shannon Cossa, construction representative at the district's Vandenberg Resident Office. "Hazardous material included asbestos, lead paint, lead glazing on ceramic tile and mercury in the thermometer switches."

Ms. Cossa said it was important to ensure these toxins were removed from homes prior to demolition to ensure proper disposal.

"Everything belongs in its own designated place," she said. "We don't want it being released into the open air or just dumped into a landfill."

The process goes on for three to four weeks before the demolition crews begin their work. The delay allows both crews to continue working without demolition workers being bogged down by abatement crews. Ms. Cossa said abatement for an average six-plex house takes six days but demolishing the same house takes only two days. In addition to the houses, the issue of what do to do with the playground equipment in the housing area had to be addressed.

A construction worker hoses down a section of a house to keep dust from flying as it is town down in August. This section of the former Vandenberg East housing area was demolished during the Phase one through Phase Three demolition project just outside Vandenberg. Gary Black, assistant superintendent for the Lompoc Unified School District, said his district was able to negotiate with Vandenberg officials to secure the equipment for area schools. The equipment was worth more than $250,000. Lompoc officials contacted a local contractor to move the equipment. There was still the cost of disassembling, moving and reassembling the equipment and playground area, but the savings and to the schools in the district were significant.

"A quarter of a million dollars may not seem like a lot in some budgets," Black said. "But it's a lot for us. It means we have a quarter of a million more to go towards improvements in our buildings. It's money that gets freed up to do a lot of good for a lot of kids."

With the playground equipment moved to schools on and around Vandenberg, destruction of the former houses could proceed. Demolition was not the only fate in store for some of the former military housing area. The Vandenberg Fire Department received permission to perform practice burns in four duplexes and a single-family residence.

"In a single-family unit, we generally have three bedrooms, the living room area and other rooms to use," said Phillip Bennie, VFD assistant chief. "We may have two small fires in each bedroom and other fires throughout the house. It's usually about ten small internal fires in a single-family unit."

Several playground areas like this one outside a house in the former Vandenberg East housing area were donated to the Lompoc Unified School District. The school district paid to have contractors remove the playground equipment and install it at area schools. Using several small fires during the process allows Bennie to rotate fire crews through in groups. The training fires allow firefighters to remain current on their qualifications and allow them to practice in an environment that better simulates conditions they would encounter during an actual emergency. Since the windows, blinds, plastic outlet covers and other items normally in the walls of the housing was removed because of environmental concerns during the initial abatement process, VFD firefighters had to go in before the burns to cover the holes with plywood. This allowed them to properly train without excess wind blowing into the house through the openings.

During one training session, VFD firefighters invited state environmental, base and Corps officials to come and see the training. Bennie said this allowed each agency to see the work that came before a burn.

Before any training burn, we have to go in a fully prep the house, looking to ensure there is no plastic, asbestos or any other toxin," he said. "We also board up the openings so it burns like a real building."

Bennie said he expects to receive five buildings to use for training fires in the upcoming Phase IV portion of the Vandenberg housing demolition. He expects that process to begin early next year.