LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A massive fire that damaged a critical stretch of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway in downtown Los Angeles is believed to have been intentionally set, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, adding that initial examination of the affected roadway indicates the structural integrity of the freeway is better than expected.
There was no immediate information on a possible arson suspect or suspects, but Newsom said at a Monday afternoon news conference the fire was set within the fenceline of the storage business operating below the freeway, which was littered with vehicles, pallets and other materials.
Newsom said Cal Fire investigators who completed their initial probe Sunday night determined "that it was arson, and that it was done and set intentionally. The determination of who was responsible is an investigation that is ongoing."
He said investigators had some preliminary tips, but he urged anyone with information about the start of the blaze to come forward and call a hotline at 800-468-4408.
"Arson appears to be the likely ignition for this fire," Newsom said. "That ignition (point and cause) was determined with precision by the fire marshal, Cal Fire and their teams."
No specifics were released about how the fire was ignited.
Mayor Karen Bass stressed there was no initial information that would link the fire to homeless people in the area, and she urged the public not to jump to that conclusion. She said there were 16 homeless people living in the immediate vicinity of the fire area, and they have all since been placed in housing.
"There is no reason to assume the origin of this fire ... is because there were unhoused individuals nearby," Bass said.
Meanwhile, commuters on Monday dealt with the first weekday commutes since the freeway was closed in the area of the East L.A. Interchange due to the early Saturday morning fire. An estimated 300,000 people use the stretch of freeway every day, and motorists were forced to find alternate routes, use public transit or work remotely if possible. With the freeway expected to remain closed indefinitely, motorists could be searching for alternatives for weeks.
Questions continued to linger about how long the freeway stretch will be closed. Engineers were still collecting core samples of concrete and rebar from the freeway and the dozens of support columns to determine if the structures can be repaired or if the entire freeway might need to be torn down and rebuilt.
Newsom said initial testing results indicated that the structural integrity of the freeway deck was better than initially anticipated, offering some hope that freeway supports and the road itself could undergo a much shorter repair process. But he said it was still too early to make that determination, noting that there were roughly 100 support columns that were damaged and needed to be inspected, with nine or 10 of them severely damaged.
He said more test results from early samples are expected back Tuesday morning.
The initial fire was reported at 12:22 a.m. Saturday in the 1700 block of East 14th Street, two blocks west of Alameda Street, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department's Margaret Stewart.
Firefighters from 26 companies worked feverishly to contain and extinguish the major emergency fire, which started in one downtown pallet yard, spread to another and consumed a fire engine that became stuck in its path, Stewart said.
The first pallet yard was 40,000 square feet in size and fully involved with flames that engulfed multiple trailers when firefighters arrived. The flames spread to the second pallet yard of similar size between Lawrence and Elwood streets.
Stewart said that by 2:33 a.m. Saturday, pallets in both yards were mostly consumed by the flames and firefighters were using bulldozers to move debris and put out hot spots.
Firefighters successfully prevented the fire from spreading to three nearby commercial buildings, Stewart said.
The freeway was closed in both directions roughly between Alameda Street and Santa Fe Avenue. The closure also impacts the East L.A. Interchange, affecting connectors to the Golden State (5) and the Hollywood (101) and Pomona (60) freeways.
Doug Young, an assistant chief with the CHP, provided the following freeway detours:
- Drivers on eastbound I-10 will be diverted at Alameda Street;
- Drivers on the westbound 60 will be diverted to northbound I-5 or northbound 101;
- Drivers on southbound I-5 will be diverted onto the westbound I-10 but must take the first exit at Mateo Street;
- Drivers on northbound I-5 must divert to the northbound 101.
State officials established a website at fixthe10.ca.gov to provide the latest information on the repair process.
Officials urged motorists trying to navigate the area to remain on various freeways as much as possible to avoid having local streets overloaded by thousands of vehicles.
Newsom again noted that the company that leased the property from Caltrans beneath the freeway in the area has been sued by the state due to alleged violations of the lease terms -- most notably by subleasing the property to other companies without permission and failing to pay rent. A hearing in the unlawful detainer -- or eviction -- effort is scheduled for early next year. He identified the company as Calabasas-based Apex Development.
The governor also noted that the state was reviewing all other similar leases in the area to determine how many Apex may hold if those other leases may also be in default.
At a mid-morning briefing Monday at Caltrans District 7 headquarters, Toks Omishakin, the state's secretary of transportation, said emergency funding was in place, and two contractors have been working at the site to clean up the area and shore up the structure.
Also at the mid-morning briefing on Monday was Shailen Bhatt, the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. Bhatt said the president and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg have been briefed about the situation, and the federal government "will provide whatever funding is needed" to assist in the rebuilding effort.
Bass on Monday morning urged patience from commuters, noting "this was a huge fire, and the damage will not be fixed in an instant."
"Losing this stretch of the 10 Freeway will take time and money from people's lives and businesses," Bass said. "It's disrupting in every way. Whether you are talking about traveling to and from work, or your child care plans and the flow of goods and commerce, this will disrupt the lives of Angelenos. So, I will not settle for anything other than a rebuilding plan and a timeline that becomes a new model for speed."
Bass outlined what she called "a three-pronged approach" to handling the problem.
"Number one, ensuring that we are coordinating a comprehensive plan from the city's traffic center and our emergency operations center to address the traffic impacts of this closure with our local, state and federal partners," Bass said.
The second part of the plan is "getting the 10 Freeway up and running as fast as possible, and bringing accountability to that effort," the mayor said.
"And finally, providing updated and detailed information to ensure that our communities and commuters are well informed every step of the way," Bass said.
Bass said officials have been reaching out to the community via the "wireless emergency alert" system, as well as announcements on Nextdoor and Instagram Live.
Metrolink expanded service beginning Monday on its San Bernardino Line to support travelers impacted by the Interstate 10 closure in downtown Los Angeles. The agency also increased capacity and ran added service on the line to and from the Inland Empire and downtown L-A. Six extra trains will run in each direction -- three in the morning and three in the afternoon/evening.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said all of the district's schools and offices remained opened. He noted all school buses were continuing to operate, with about 40 of the routes needing to be adjusted, but he said delays during the morning commute were only about 15 minutes. Families looking for information about district transportation were urged to contact 1-800-LA-BUSES (522-8737).
Newsom declared a local state of emergency that directs Caltrans to request assistance through the Federal Highway Administration's Emergency Relief Program. He said Sunday no regulations would impede the efforts to reopen the freeway, noting that with more than 300,000 people using the road daily, it holds "significant consequence to the economy and the health and safety of Angelenos."
He added that 2 million pounds of steel was available to move in immediately while officials assess broader supply chain issues.
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