LOS ANGELES (AP) — State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it burned in an arson fire last weekend, documents show.
The blaze — fed by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of the company’s lease — closed a stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown for days, snarling traffic as repair crews work around the clock to fix it. Officials say all lanes are expected to reopen by Tuesday.
The documents were released by the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, on Friday, a day before investigators said they identified a “person of interest” and released two photos in a “crime alert notification” posted to social media. Authorities said Saturday that they are seeking the public’s help to identify the person.
While investigators have not said how the fire was set, the blaze was fed by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items being stored under the freeway under a little-known program that now is under scrutiny. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that the state will reassess the practice of leasing land under roads to bring in money for mass transportation projects.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although one condition of the contract stipulated it not allow flammable or hazardous materials to be stored there, state inspectors — who have visited the site six times since early 2020 — flagged problematic conditions for years.
“This is a filthy unmaintained lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report following a surprise inspection that discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items prohibited 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 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 for next year.
The state’s most recent spot inspection — which occurred a little over a month before the Nov. 11 fire — found “numerous lease violations,” but the documents released Friday did not list additional details.
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 and in fact had made improvements to the property. He said the company has not 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 said in a statement. “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 immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Izzy Gordon, a spokesperson for the governor, earlier this week disagreed with D’Attaray’s statement that Apex is not to blame, saying the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as 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.”
Brandon Richards, another Newsom spokesperson, reiterated the governor’s directive for Caltrans “to launch a comprehensive review of all leased sites under freeways across California” when asked Saturday for the state’s response to the inspection documents and the next steps in the process. Richards did not address whether anyone at Caltrans is facing discipline.
Regarding the “person of interest” in the arson case, the governor’s office urged “anyone with information about this incident or this suspect” to contact a tip hotline.
The individual was described as a man 30 to 35 years old, about 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and weighing between 170 pounds (77 kilograms) and 190 pounds (86 kilograms). Details about how he was identified were not immediately released.
The photographs show him wearing blue shorts, a black hooded sweatshirt, a green scarf and a brace on the right knee. The individual is carrying a backpack and “appears to have visible burn injuries” on the left leg, the bulletin states.
The photographs were released by Cal Fire and the State Fire Marshal, whose office is investigating the blaze. The mayor’s office also did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.
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 highways. The city has been urging people to avoid the area, take buses and trains or work from home.