A massive fire beneath one of the most vital traffic arteries in downtown Los Angeles is believed to have been intentionally set, officials said during a Monday news conference.
At 3:30 p.m. Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass participated in a press conference to discuss the blaze that has crippled the downtown commute for hundreds of thousands of Angelenos.
Newsom began the press conference by describing the fire as being set with “malice intent,” saying the fire burned within the fence line and appeared to be an act of arson.
The governor described the investigation related to who set the blaze as “ongoing.”
Newsom had previously said that the area was being leased by a company that the state knew well and was involved in active litigation with, adding that the lease had recently expired.
On Monday, Newsom identified the company as Apex Development Inc. and said he expects the case to be heard in court in early 2024.
“This guy and this organization, whoever the members of that particular organization are, have been bad actors,” Newsom said. “We’ve been in a litigious posture for some time. They stopped paying their rent, they’re out of compliance, and as was stated yesterday … they have been subleasing this site to at least five, maybe as many as six tenants, without authorization from Caltrans or authorization from our federal partners.”
California Fire Marshall Daniel Berlant said Cal Fire would assist Caltrans and ensure that any entities that lease or sublease land beneath the state’s overpasses are “held to California’s rigourous fire code and building code elements.” He also urged anyone with information, as small as it may be, to come forward.
The fire was first reported early Saturday around 12:30 a.m. near East 14th and Alameda streets underneath the freeway. It engulfed both sides of 14th Street underneath the 10, eventually melting some of the freeway’s steel guardrails and damaging fire trucks.
The blaze ripped through a pallet yard, causing dense plumes of smoke and limiting visibility throughout the area.
The investigation was first described as arson by the Los Angeles Times, citing law enforcement sources who were unable to discuss the investigation on the record.
In addition to the reports of the arson investigation, the Times also says a source reported a large amount of hand sanitizer collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, was stored under the overpass, acting as additional fuel for the disastrous fire.
There have also been reports of unhoused residents seeking shelter in the area, although investigators have not said if there is any connection between the fire and any adjacent encampments.
The state has declared the fire and subsequent road closure a state emergency.
Before a reopening timeline can be established, structural engineers will need to determine the extent of damage to the roadway. That process is now underway after the bulk of hazardous materials were cleaned from the site.
While the investigation into the person or persons responsible is ongoing, appraisals into what will be needed to reopen the roadway showed some positive signs.
“The structural integrity of the deck appears to be much stronger than originally assessed,” Newsom said. “That does not mean that we are moving forward without consideration of a demo[lition]. Quite the contrary. We are assessing additional samples, but the preliminary samples show more positive results than initially anticipated.”
However, it’s more than just the freeway deck that needs repairing, the governor said.
More than 100 columns were damaged, “nine or 10 quite severely,” Newsom said.
Early Monday morning, Bass and Newsom held additional press conferences in which they each said the reopening of the freeway was of the highest priority.
Newsom said the repair operations would be taking place on a 24/7 basis and Bass promised that bureaucracy or unnecessary delays would not get hamper reopening efforts.
Until the roadway is reopened, drivers are being encouraged to work from home if possible or take public transportation. Both Metrolink and L.A. Metro have expanded service options to ease the burden of commuters.
The following closures will remain in place until further notice:
- Northbound 5 Freeway to westbound 10 Freeway
- Southbound 5 Freeway to westbound 10 Freeway
- Westbound 60 Freeway to westbound 10 Freeway
- The westbound 10 Freeway on-ramp at Soto Street
- The eastbound 10 Freeway on-ramp at Alameda Street
- The westbound 10 Freeway on-ramp at Santa Fe Avenue
Angelenos are encouraged to stay updated on road closures, alternate route suggestions, additional transportation options and freeway repair estimates from Caltrans by regularly visiting L.A.’s Emergency Management Department website.
Cameron Kiszla contributed to this report.