What—or Who—Caused That Devastating Freeway Fire in Los Angeles?

Caltrans

California Gov. (and stealth presidential candidate) Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Saturday night following a devastating Los Angeles fire that has shut down part of Interstate 10 downtown "until further notice," according to local officials. While officials have yet to reveal the cause of the fire, it seems obvious from local reports, but I'll get to that in a moment. 

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"Officials said that they wanted to prepare the public for significant delays in the coming days [and] weeks as all lanes within a two-mile stretch of the I-10 downtown are closed until further notice," reported KTLA-5. Los Angeles doesn't have enough freeway to begin with. Having I-10 partly closed downtown is going to make a bad situation worse.

"The fire was so hot that it melted some of the freeway’s steel guardrails and concrete pillars," according to the story. "It eventually spread to eight acres before being contained."

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass compared the damage to the Northridge earthquake of 1994. Back then, she said, "Caltrans worked around the clock to complete emergency repairs to the freeways... and this structural damage calls for the same level of urgency and effort."

Here was the scene on Sunday after the flames had been extinguished.

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"More than 164 firefighters fought the blaze," according to LAist, "which was largely contained within three hours. But some hotspots remained in hard-to-reach areas underneath the freeway and robotic equipment was brought in." It took until Sunday to put out the last of the fires.

My immediate question upon seeing the damage was what was there enough of — under a highway overpass — to create a conflagration big enough to cause that much damage? That question brings us to our unmentioned culprit...

Another KTLA report mentioned that the squatters at a local homeless encampment located under an I-10 overpass were "forced to evacuate as flames engulfed the area and chunks of supporting concrete columns collapsed."

Here in Southern Colorado, we don't see much underneath our overpasses except for the occasional motorcyclist waiting out a rainstorm. It's easy to forget what life is like in places like Los Angeles, where major overpasses have become major homeless encampments.

This is what the burned-out area looked like before Saturday's "rubbish fire."

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In addition to all the flammable detritus, notice the huge stacks of wooden pallets on both sides of the background. 

The LA Fire Department account noted an "outdoor pallet yard" on nearby Ceres Ave, but that doesn't account for the flammable pallets stacked high underneath the freeway.  A story from ABC-7 mentions "a storage yard under the freeway" at E. 14th Street, which makes it sound like a tinderbox waiting for a spark. In all, the fire would "eventually go on to burn 8 acres — the equivalent of six football fields."

According to this NBC-4 report, a local food vendor heard "many explosions" during the fire.

According to one local account, as many as 50 people made the underpass their home.

Anyone who's come close to one of the "urban camping" setups knows that propane tanks are a common sight. And everybody knows that they go KABLOOEY in a fire. Whatever it was that caused the spark under I-10, between the pallets and multiple propane tanks, I guess Los Angeles was fortunate that nobody appears to have been killed.

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It's too early to say for sure, but as of Monday morning, it appears that a combination of improper pallet storage combined with the usual hazards of homeless life is responsible for the indefinite closure of a section of I-10 that carries more than a quarter million cars each day. 

Local authorities are supposed to have a report out on Monday detailing what happened. Whether it's an honest report or a whitewash remains to be seen, so stay tuned.

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