By Kevin Tidmarsh, Makenna Sievertson, Yusra Farzan and Frank Stoltze/LAist
Originally published Nov 11, 2023
A massive fire that indefinitely shut down both directions of the 10 Freeway between the East L.A. connector and Alameda Street this weekend was likely the result of arson, officials said Monday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters that “arson appears to be the likely ignition for this fire,” adding that the investigation was still ongoing.
The CalFire investigation into what sparked the fire was completed 12 hours early. Their preliminary determination is that the fire was started with malice intent, Newsom said.
“That it was arson, and that it was done and set intentionally,” Newsom said. “That determination of who is responsible is an investigation that is ongoing.”
Mayor Karen Bass underscored that they do not yet know who is responsible.
“We know that the origin of this is arson. We do not know other information. There is no reason to assume that the origin of this fire or the reason this fire happened. was because there were unhoused individuals nearby,” Bass said. “I want you to know that we are working urgently to address this crisis.” Bass
Los Angeles city leaders are warning of major traffic congestion after “extensive damage” from the fire that erupted Saturday morning in downtown. The key regional connector currently sees about 300,000 cars a day, underscoring the dramatic effect of the disaster.
Crews have been shoring the bridge — adding in temporary supports — and it will be now determined whether the bridge must be demolished or can be saved with repairs.
“We will have a better sense of what actually led to this incident,” said California State Transportation Agency Secretary Toks Omishakin. Additionally, the hazmat assessment, he said, is done “which is really key, our maintenance and structural engineers are able to do work.”
L.A. Mayor Bass and Gov. Newsom say no timeline on reopening
In a news conference Sunday, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass called for patience from Los Angeles drivers. The mayor invoked the Northridge earthquake in 1994 in terms of the severity and consequences of Saturday’s damage.
“For those of you that remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans worked around the clock to complete emergency repairs to the freeways,” said Bass. “And this structural damage calls for the same level of urgency and effort.”
“Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that this is going to be over in a couple of days. We cannot give you an estimate of time right now,” she continued.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that a reopening time frame is being assessed and will be “determined on the basis of safety.”
The governor said the fire has damaged the many columns supporting the freeway.
“The real problem is what lies underneath, that’s the bridge deck — that’s the primary focus now of our investigation,” said Newsom. “We believe a lot of that did burn, how that may have impacted that structure.”
Caltrans is assessing damage
An emergency contract to begin restoration of the structure has been secured by Caltrans, according to Toks Omishakin, California’s secretary of transportation.
He said crews have taken hazardous material samples for lab analysis. Once that is complete, work crews will remove debris from under the overpass. Only then can structural engineers from the department perform a thorough assessment.
“I want to emphasize that our efforts on this are going to have to be 24-7 to get this roadway back open. But I’m not going to understate the challenge here. It is significant,” Omishakin said.
Several people referenced the work down in 1994 when the Northridge earthquake damaged the 10 Freeway and a private construction firm — operating with generous incentives in place — was able to rebuild two bridges in just over two months — 74 days earlier than projected.
Newsom, who declared a state of emergency on Saturday to help with cleanup and repairs, said Sunday that incentives could come into play again, but he said that had yet to be determined.
“The state is mobilizing resources and taking steps to ensure any necessary repairs are completed as soon as possible to minimize the impact on those traveling in and around Los Angeles,” Newsom said.
Bass is asking all city departments to work together to minimize traffic impact.
“We are approaching this issue with absolute urgency,” Bass said.
About the fire
The fire started at a pallet yard just north of the 10 Freeway near the intersection of East 14th Street and South Alameda Street at around 12:22 a.m. Saturday, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. The blaze quickly spread to a second pallet yard, affecting nearly eight acres of the area at one point.
More than 164 firefighters fought the blaze, which was largely contained within three hours. But some hotspots remained in hard-to-reach areas underneath the freeway and robotic equipment was brought in. The fire was fully knocked down later Sunday.
On Monday, officials provided more detail about the damaged infrastructure: About 450 feet of the freeway was affected by the fire, said John Yang, deputy district director for construction for Caltrans District 7. He said that includes more than 90 concrete support columns, each 3 feet in diameter and nearly 16 feet tall.
“We’re inspecting every aspect of it,” he said.
Omishakin said inspectors had been able to take concrete and rebar samples from the underside of the bridge and columns.
“Once we analyze these samples, we will get a clearer idea of our repair strategy,” he said.
A Caltrans spokesperson said the analysis will take several days.
There were no reported injuries to firefighters — or injuries to others. The cause of the fire is under active investigation.
Officials at Sunday’s news conference described treacherous conditions that made getting the fire under control a challenge. At one point, after electrical lines were knocked down by the fire, authorities at the scene were concerned that the water being used to knock down flames could be electrified. That forced them to pull firefighters back and turn to heavy equipment.
Newsom said that the state has begun litigation with the lessee of the pallet yard where the fire started.
“In fact, our inspectors have been out there on a consistent basis with citations,” Newsom said at the press conference. “Their lease has expired, they’re in arrears, we believe they’ve been subleasing the space, and we actually have a court date in the early part of the new calendar year.”
Newsom said that he could not provide further details on any violations the lessees of the lot may have incurred, but that more updates would be forthcoming.
How to commute
California Highway Patrol warns that traffic diverted from the 10 Freeway closure will impact the 5 Freeway, the 60, and the 101.
The Los Angeles Department of Transportation said it was working to establish dedicated detours on surface streets.
“If you are driving on the freeway through downtown, we ask that you do not exit the freeway onto surface streets to bypass the affected area,” said Laura Rubio-Cornejo, general manager of LADOT, adding that drivers should stay on the freeway and transfer to the 5, 110, or the 101.
The city has more information on alternate routes here.
Public transit users can take the E line from Santa Monica through downtown Los Angeles to East LA. The J line parallels a portion of the 110 freeway completely avoiding the closure area. Another option is the A line from Azuza all the way to downtown Long Beach.
Metrolink, Wiggins said, is increasing service from Covina all the way to downtown.
“There will now be 30-minute service all day, additional trips, six round trips in total that Metrolink has added starting this morning to give people more choices to ride,” she said.
Transportation and city officials also asked anyone who works in downtown L.A. to work from home if at all possible — at least for now.
City officials are also hoping businesses in downtown L.A. will lean into work from home policies for the time being to help alleviate traffic.
“I know we’ve spent this time trying to encourage people to come back downtown, back into their offices,” Bass said at a news conference. “But while we are going through this crisis, we would like for employers who can have their staff work remotely to do so.”
All LAUSD schools will be open Monday, but Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said parents and employees should expect delays. Carvalho said in a statement that families who have questions about district transportation should call (800) 522-8737 (1-800-LA-BUSES).
This story was updated on Nov. 13
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.