Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday that the burned stretch of I-10 shut down since the weekend in Los Angeles would at least partially open by the end of the year, with speculation growing that homeless people may have been responsible for the fire.
The fire first began in the early hours on Saturday when a fire erupted at a wooden pallet storage yard near the I-10 freeway. The blaze quickly spread to around 8 acres, with the interstate being so damaged that steel guardrails and concrete pillars had begun melting. While the fire was ultimately contained by the LAFD and put out later in the morning with no injuries or loss of life, fire and transportation officials closed a portion of I-10 between the Alameda street exit and the I-5 interchange indefinitely.
In the following several days, Governor Newsom has declared a state of emergency because of the closure of a highway serving 300,000 people daily, Mayor Karen Bass has petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportations for repair funds, and Caltrans has set up detours around the damaged section. On Monday, Newsom then announced that the fire was arson, with an investigation of the site holder underneath the freeway section being investigated by both state and local officials. Cal Fire, meanwhile, would continue their investigation on who exactly started the fire and how.
This led to yet another announcement on Tuesday. While initial estimates put the reopening of the freeway into the “weeks and months,” Caltrans found that the fire didn’t do as much damage as initially thought. A total demolition and rebuild, which was set at an estimated six months, was instead upgraded to more manageable repairs. With crews set to be working 24/7, a new timeline of a partial reopening by the end of the year was put forth.
“The 10 Freeway in Los Angeles is on track to at least partially reopen to traffic in three to five weeks,” the Governor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday. “The major artery that serves 300,000 vehicles daily closed in both directions this weekend after a fire caused significant damage to up to 100 support pillars.”
“After testing samples and assessing damage from the site, state transportation officials currently believe the damage can be repaired without demolishing and rebuilding the 450-foot span of the 10 Freeway, which could have taken upwards of 6 months. Union crews are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to finish removing the extensive debris and shore up the pillars. These efforts are aimed at making the necessary repairs to safely reopen the freeway to moving traffic as soon as possible.”
Governor Newsom then added later, “Thanks to the fast work of our first responders, workers and engineers, we now expect to be able to reopen the 10 Freeway to traffic in three to five weeks. California will continue working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the job done and get Los Angeles moving again.”
Newsom also noted in his statement that the state was now taking action against Apex and that a court date was set for February.
NEW: We expect the I-10 Freeway to be reopened to traffic in 3-5 weeks.
The state is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get this done.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) November 14, 2023
Investigations into the I-10 fire
While no new information was officially released by the state as to who started the fire, speculation grew on Tuesday and Wednesday that a homeless encampment underneath the highway was at least partially responsible for the blaze. As the Globe reported on Tuesday, Homeless people who were stealing electricity from a nearby building when something went wrong have become the new prime suspects to many. Social media users also quickly pointed out on Tuesday that the whole area was lined with homeless tents, especially around the pallet facility, showing increased evidence of at least some homeless people there being involved in some way.
Adding to the growing speculation is the fact that similar fires in recent years by other highways in Los Angeles were also previously found to have been caused by homeless encampments. The most recent such fire occurred Tuesday, with a homeless encampment found on fire underneath a nearby LA freeway. The combined evidence led many to believe that state officials and Governor Newsom have been trying to not blame the homeless because of several factors, including showing just how rampant homeless encampment fires are, how it would highlight the failures of many homeless policies, and the possible damage it would do to Newsom’s campaign.
The Globe spoke with arson investigators who have had experience with homeless encampment fires in the past on Wednesday; they expressed that nothing should be ruled out until the investigation completes.
“There is a lot of talking over this one, but you need to look at the facts of the case,” said Tim Spencer a former fireman and fire investigator for an insurance company, to the Globe. “So, right now, state officials are looking into this. They said arson, so that means extensive testing, investigation, interviewing, cooperating with the police, and a whole host of other things to do.”
“There are reports of homeless living nearby who hooked up an unauthorized electrical connection. That needs to be investigated, and likely is right now. But since they called this an arson, that means they found something at the site, like residue or traces of an accelerant or something flammable. A lot of times it takes some doing, but I’ve had a few insurance fraud cases where they claimed an accident but they left the lighter at the scene of the crime or left out a receipt for a lot of flammable materials. Point is, they found something beyond it being an accident.”
“That being said, homeless camps are notorious for fires. Over 50% of fires fought by the LAFD are homeless caused, as are some wildfires. And most of the time they aren’t malicious. We’ve seen many fires go out of control simply because they started a fire to stay warm and it grew too big. This one though, it is an arson of some sort, so what investigators finally report on will be very interesting.”
More on who caused the fire and exactly how it happened is expected to be released soon.
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