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Arson-Hit L.A. Freeway Defies Odds, Roars Back to Life Ahead of Schedule

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released photo of possible arson suspect labeled as "person of interest."

An elevated Los Angeles roadway that had been blocked for more than a week due to an arson fire reopened ahead of the morning commute on Monday, at least a day sooner than previously stated and weeks ahead of the initial projection.

“The 10 is BACK!” exclaimed Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass late Sunday on X, formerly known as Twitter, referring to Interstate 10.

The Nov. 11 fire, which was fueled by combustible chemicals kept beneath the highway in violation of a company’s contract, shut down a mile-long stretch of I-10 near downtown, clogging traffic while repair personnel worked around the clock. Officials had stated last week that all lanes would reopen by Tuesday, but this was pushed forward to Monday due to strong progress.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made the surprising announcement during a press conference Thursday evening, just days after a devastating storage yard fire caused the shutdown of the 10 Freeway. The main thoroughfare’s five lanes in each direction will be open by Nov. 21 at the latest.

The road remains blocked in both directions between Alameda Street and Santa Fe Avenue, impacting links to the I-5, US 101, and SR-60 freeways while crews labor around the clock to rebuild the freeway by Tuesday.

A new website has been built, enabling commuters to get the most recent information on repairs as well as live cameras to watch work.

Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that recent safety assessments revealed that the span was safe to begin reopening Sunday evening and that the freeway will be “fully operational” by Monday rush hour.

“We wanted to make sure this thing was safe, not just fast,” Newsom said at a press conference attended by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, and Bass.

Officials initially estimated that it would take 250 workers three to five weeks to repair the span after the fire destroyed around 100 support columns.

“This is a great day in our city,” Bass remarked on Sunday. “Let me thank everyone who worked 24 hours to make this effort happen.”

According to authorities, there may be occasional closures in the next few weeks or months as repairs proceed. The freeway, which runs east-west across the city and links to other important routes, is used by an estimated 300,000 cars every day.

Padilla predicted that the initial repairs, which would be paid for by federal funding, would cost $3 million.

Documents indicate that state investigators regularly reported fire and safety problems at a rented storage area beneath an elevated Los Angeles highway before it burned in the fire.

Caltrans, or the California Department of Transportation, published the materials on Friday. Investigators said Saturday that they are looking for a “person of interest” and shared two photographs in a “crime alert notification” on social media depicting a guy in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and possible burn injuries on his left leg.

The photos were shared by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—Cal Fire—and the State Fire Marshal’s office, which is investigating the fire but has not said how he was identified.

History of problems at the fire site

While authorities have not revealed how the fire started, it was fueled by pallets, automobiles, building materials, hand sanitizer, and other goods kept beneath the road under a little-known scheme that is now under investigation. Newsom has stated that the state will reconsider leasing property beneath highways in order to raise funds for mass transit projects.

Since 2008, Apex Development Inc. has leased the area beneath I-10. Despite a contract requirement that no flammable or dangerous goods be stored there, state inspectors have visited the location six times since early 2020 and have noted poor circumstances for years.

“This is a filthy, unmaintained lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after discovering solvents, oils, gasoline, and other materials prohibited by the agreement during a surprise inspection. “This area has been utilized since the mid-1970s and looks like it.”

The owners of two of the firms that subleased the land said they had also warned of a fire hazard and other risks associated with homeless people living beneath the road. According to Newsom, while subleasing is permitted provided the corporation obtains clearance from state and federal officials, Apex did not.

Apex was sued in September by state officials, who said it owed $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is planned for next year.

The state’s most recent spot inspection, a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, discovered “numerous lease violations,” according to records published Friday.

Caltrans stated in a statement that it had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, particularly those creating safety hazards.”

Apex Development attorney Mainak D’Attaray said Wednesday that the firm isn’t to blame for the fire and that the company hasn’t been allowed to visit the site since October.

“Apex rented and improved the rundown yard and made substantial capital investments during the period that it had possession of the yard,” the press release stated. “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 reply to a comment request on Saturday.

Last Monday, Izzy Gordon, the governor’s spokesman, disagreed with D’Attaray’s assertion that Apex is not to blame. According to Gordon, the fire was started by arson “in a fenced-off area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to assert rights under the lease.”

Another Newsom spokeswoman, Brandon Richards, restated the governor’s instruction to Caltrans to undertake a thorough assessment of all leased properties beneath the state’s roadways. Richards did not say whether anybody at Caltrans is facing disciplinary action.

The fire caused no injuries, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment nearby were evacuated to shelters.

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