Fire damage is viewed beneath the closed I-10 elevated freeway following a large pallet fire, which occurred Nov. 11 at a storage yard, in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES—The area under an elevated Los Angeles freeway that burned last weekend, damaging a section of a key thoroughfare in the car-dependent city, was stacked with flammable materials on lots leased by the state through a little-known program that now is under scrutiny.
The blaze Nov. 11 burned about 100 support columns, forcing the closure of a vital mile-long stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown that is used by hundreds of thousands of people daily.
It could take crews working around the clock between three and five weeks to repair the freeway, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.
Mr. Newsom said the state would reassess the practice of leasing land under roads to bring in money for mass transportation projects.
Details of that program remain opaque. Mr. Newsom’s office directed questions about whether the state has any regular inspection protocols to state transportation officials. The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, did not respond to questions about inspections or provide information about how many properties the state leases.
State Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who represents part of downtown Los Angeles, said officials should disclose how many sites are leased under the program, the terms of contracts, how much money the program generates, and how the state ensures companies comply with the contract requirements.
“Some of those actions could have prevented what we now see happened underneath the 10,” Mr. Santiago said.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. One condition of Apex’s contract stipulated it not allow flammable or hazardous materials to be stored there.
The fire that spread quickly over 8 acres was fed by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer, and other items being stored under the freeway in an industrial neighborhood. No injuries were reported but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.
No arrests have been made and Mr. Newsom has said investigators are trying to determine if more than one person was involved in what officials said was likely arson.
Prior to the fire, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying the company owes $78,000 in unpaid rent.
The lawsuit also says Apex was subleasing to six other companies. That can be legal if the company received permission from state and federal regulators but Apex did not, Mr. Newsom said.
Apex has confirmed the litigation but has not answered other questions through a lawyer.
Owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they had warned of fire danger and other hazards related to homeless people living under the freeway. Luis Cartagena of Eagle Wood Services said he stopped using the space for his wood pallet business more than a year ago because he was losing so much to theft.
“There was a lot of homeless people there, drug dealing, prostitution and there was a lot of theft,” he said. “I couldn’t leave anything.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (C) speaks as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (L) listens at a press conference near the closed I-10 elevated freeway following a large pallet fire, which occurred Nov. 11 at a storage yard beneath the freeway, in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Rudy Serafin said he’s been leasing space under I-10 from Apex since 2009. He uses it to store supplies for businesses in the garment district including hangars, boxes, and bags. He also stores office supplies including hand sanitizer, which is flammable.
He estimates he lost $800,000. “I don’t know what I am going to do. I am 49 years old. I have no other resources. This is my livelihood. This is what I feed my kids with,” he said.
Mr. Serafin said he’s been unable to get insurance for his business because of concerns about homeless people using cooking fires in the area. He said he and other businesses called the city repeatedly to request a cleanup of the encampment. The city removed homeless people from the space once, but the encampments quickly returned, he said.
The city didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether they had received complaints or removed people from the site. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass warned Monday against assuming homeless people started the blaze.
Mr. Serafin said he and other contractors received a notice from the state transportation agency in May saying Apex wasn’t paying its rent. Mr. Serafin and other business owners stopped paying Apex, but lost access to their properties. They resumed paying and tried to work directly with Caltrans but the agency’s lawyer said he couldn’t negotiate with them, Mr. Serafin said.
Mr. Serafin said he signed a contract with Apex in 2009 but couldn’t find it.
Fire destroyed I-10 between the East LA Connector and Alameda St. in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 11, 2023. (Caltrans District 7)
The danger of storing flammable materials under elevated interstates has drawn the scrutiny of federal investigators in the past. After a 2017 fire collapsed a section of Interstate 85 in Atlanta, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the Georgia Department of Transportation’s decision to store construction materials beneath the bridge without assessing the fire risk. The department said it immediately changed storage practices.
California Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant said investigators have identified where Saturday’s fire started and what caused it after sorting through the rubble for evidence, but did not specify what they found. He had no information on a suspect and said investigators are talking to witnesses.
An estimated 300,000 vehicles use the stretch of freeway daily, which runs east-west across the heart of the metropolis and connects with other major freeways. The city has been urging people to avoid the area, take buses and trains, or work from home.
On Wednesday morning, Javier Ramos inched along with his father who was driving to his weekly physical therapy appointment in an industrial area blocks from I-10 as trucks and tractor-trailers cut in and out of the traffic to get to nearby warehouses.
It had already taken them about 20 minutes to get to Sacramento Street from East Los Angeles and their GPS showed they still had 33 minutes—at least—left in their travel. Normally the trip takes 45 minutes.
“We can’t do nothing about it,” he said, adding that next week they will leave earlier.
The Federal Highway Administration, meanwhile, announced Wednesday the immediate availability of an initial installment of $3 million in emergency relief funds to offset I-10 repair costs. Caltrans district director Gloria Roberts said work was on schedule.
By Julie Watson and Amy Taxin
An aerial view of burnt cars and other debris under the I-10 freeway after a large fire led to the shutdown of the freeway, also called the Santa Monica Freeway, in both directions, in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 2023. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)