Fire that damaged and closed section of Los Angeles freeway ruled an arson

By Steve Gorman and Daniel Trotta

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A weekend fire that heavily damaged an elevated stretch of a downtown Los Angeles freeway, forcing an indefinite closure of the structure, was found by investigators to have been deliberately set, state officials said on Monday.

The arson ruling in the blaze that engulfed a portion of the Santa Monica Freeway early on Saturday was revealed by California Governor Gavin Newsom and State Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant at an afternoon news conference.

“We have been able to confidently determine that the fire was caused by arson,” Berlant told reporters, adding that investigators were seeking the public’s help to identify the person or persons who were responsible.

He declined to give more details about how investigators reached their conclusion or about how precisely the fire was ignited.

Some 300,000 vehicles ply the Santa Monica Freeway daily, with downtown L.A. often congested under normal circumstances, so that detours from the closure were expected to ripple out and compound heavy traffic across the metropolitan area.

Two days after the fire, transportation officials said they had yet to determine whether the stricken portion of the freeway can be repaired or will need to be demolished and rebuilt.

The flames, which charred support columns and the freeway deck, spread through at least two storage yards filled with stacks of wood pallets and containers beneath the overpass, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

It took 164 firefighters from 26 fire companies several hours early Saturday to put out the blaze, fire officials said.

No connection was immediately found between the fire and a nearby homeless encampment, Mayor Karen Bass said earlier in the day, adding that 16 people found there had since been placed into housing. No injuries were reported.

Despite traffic concerns, Laura Rubio-Cornejo, general manager of the city Transportation Department, said many motorists seemed to be minding advisories urging them away from downtown streets and to use public transit or work from home when possible.

“The congestion was a little better than normal,” Rubio-Cornejo said.

Even so, roads in and around downtown were jam-packed, according to local media, and even minor traffic accidents could quickly be amplified into gridlock.

Newsom on Sunday proclaimed a state of emergency in Los Angeles County in order to expedite repairs to the freeway. While touring the damage, the governor vowed to get the highway reopened as quickly as possible.

Core samples of concrete and steel rebar were being examined to determine the strength of fire-damaged structures, said Tony Tavares, director of the California Department of Transportation.

“Once we analyze the samples, we will get a clearer idea of our repair strategy,” he said. “Caltran is working 24/7, literally, to determine the engineering impact to this vital structure on Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, crews were shoring up the overpass to ensure it was safe to work beneath it, and contractors were ready to start pouring concrete for new pillars if needed, Tavares said.

The damaged section of freeway, also known as the east-west Interstate 10 – or “the 10” in local parlance – was closed in both directions at a point between two other freeways vital to getting around Los Angeles, where traveling by car is the norm.

The closure, one of the area’s most consequential transportation disruptions since the January 1994 Northridge earthquake flattened two parts of the same freeway, was likely to last several days or longer, Bass said.

Following the Northridge quake, the freeway was reopened in about three months, 74 days sooner than planned, after the contractor was offered a $200,000 bonus for every day the work was finished ahead of schedule, the Los Angeles Times reported.

(This story has been corrected to fix the day of fire to Saturday, not Friday, in paragraph 2)

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Stephen Coates)