LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles drivers returned to a much more normal commute Monday when an elevated stretch of a major freeway reopened well ahead of original estimates following a raging arson fire that shut down the roadway for more than a week.
The section of Interstate 10 south of downtown reopened Sunday night, and authorities assured commuters that the freeway is safe after emergency work to shore up the structure until permanent repairs of scorched support columns can be completed.
“Yes, the 10 is open,” declared Laura Rubio-Cornejo, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, during a morning briefing on the status of the interstate, which carries about 300,000 vehicles a day and connects to other major routes.
The early morning inferno on Nov. 11 was fed by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company’s lease.
Initial worst-case scenarios raised the possibility that the section of freeway might have to be demolished and rebuilt. Officials then said tests showed it could be repaired in three to five weeks and that, with massive bracing in place, traffic could return much sooner.
Officials said last week that all lanes were expected to reopen by Tuesday, but moved it up after significant progress during around-the-clock work.
“It wasn’t just speed that we were after. We wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Sunday news conference, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Mayor Karen Bass.
“This is a great day in our city,” Bass said. “Let me thank everyone who worked 24 hours to make this effort happen.”
Most of the repair work will be done underneath the road deck, but future lane closures were possible, officials said. Some freeway ramps and nearby streets remained closed, but traffic officers were deployed in the area to direct traffic.
The Federal Highway Administration last week provided $3 million in “quick release” funds to repair the damage and said additional funds would be available from its emergency relief program.
Investigators have not said how the fire was started. On Saturday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the state fire marshal’s office said they’re seeking help locating a “person of interest” and released two photos on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and apparent burn injuries on his left leg.
State investigators had identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under the interstate several times before it burned in the fire, documents show. The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, released the documents Friday.
The blaze was fed by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items being stored under the freeway as part of a program that now is under scrutiny. Newsom has said the state will reassess the practice of leasing such lands.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although one condition of the contract stipulated that it not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.
“This is a filthy unmaintained lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items barred by the agreement. “This area has been utilized since the mid-1970s and looks like it.”
Owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they also had warned of a fire danger and other hazards related to homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subleasing can be legal if the company received permission from state and federal regulators, Apex did not.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying it owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled next year.
The state’s most recent spot inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but the documents released Friday didn’t elaborate.
Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those creating safety hazards,” the agency said in a statement.
Mainak D’Attaray, an attorney for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company is not to blame for the fire, adding the company hasn’t been able to access the premises since October.
“Apex rented and improved the rundown yard and made substantial capital investments during the period that it had possession of the yard,” D’Attaray’s statement added. “Caltrans inspected the premises periodically, at least once a year, and CalTrans was fully aware of the sublessees and their operations. Even the State of California’s Fire Marshall inspected the premises.”
D’Attaray did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Izzy Gardon, a spokesperson for the governor, last week disagreed with D’Attaray’s statement that Apex is not to blame. Gardon said that Cal Fire believes it was caused by arson “in a fenced-off area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to assert rights under the lease.”
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.
This story corrects the last name of the governor’s spokesperson to Gardon, not Gordon.