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Fire damage to I-10 freeway. (Photo: Caltrains.ca.gov)

New Caltrans Audit Finds Agency Failed To Give Adequate Inspections Of Freeways

Caltrans lack of oversight found to help contribute to massive November 2023 Interstate 10 fire in Los Angeles

By Evan Symon, June 6, 2024 2:50 am

According to a new audit from the Office of the Inspector General for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) on the November 2023 Interstate 10 fire, a lack of oversight in freeway inspections put the Interstate 10 freeway in Los Angeles at a major risk, which helped contribute to the blaze last year.

The I-10 blaze occurred on November 12, 2023 in Los Angeles. The fire first began in the early hours of the day when a fire erupted at a wooden pallet storage yard near the I-10 freeway. The blaze quickly spread to 8 acres, with the interstate 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 due to 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. Governor Newsom soon announced that the cause of the blaze was arson, with repairs soon reopening the stretch months ahead of schedule. However, ongoing investigations pushed to look into how the blaze came to be, as many laws and regulations had been broken in the area for months with flammable materials being stacked underneath the bridge and homeless encampments being allowed to stay nearby.

This led to the Caltrans audit to be released this week. In the audit, Caltrans found that, for the last 15 years, they had generally eschewed giving annual inspections. In the past 15 years, only 5 inspections were given. As inspections had been ignored in the last several years, both flammable materials like pallets and other contributing factors were allowed to pile up without inspection. It also failed to act when some problems had been found. This led to the fire to be intentionally set and easily grow, with repairs costing $3 million in federal funds.

Caltrans partially blamed in audit

“Caltrans could have—and should have—done more to make this property safer for the motoring public who traveled above it,” said Caltrans. “We have implemented new safety measures and also paused new leases for lots to better protect the state’s highway system. Safety is Caltrans’ top priority, and the department takes the results of this audit report seriously.”

The audit also found that previous similar fires, such as a 2022 fire nearby the site of the 2023 fire, had not brought about an urgent response from Caltrans or started a more stringent inspection strategy.

Mark Wiley, an engineer who specializes in highway structures, told the Globe on Wednesday that “Whenever a fire like this happens, transportation authorities always try to blame someone else. While the property holder is partially at fault, along with the person who started the fire, Caltrans took some responsibility. These yearly inspections are crucial. They look for structural weaknesses, what needs to be repaired, and what dangers there are. They skipped out on most of them. They may not have pulled the trigger, but they sure as hell helped load the gun.”

“They need to bear some of the blame in this now. They need to get back to yearly inspections too, as it could have been much worse. No city ever wants to make national news by having their highway be on fire. And this could have shut down the highway for months or even caused loss of life. Caltrans lucked out all things considered with this one, and they need to take this audit as a huge warning.”

Caltrans is expected to release a corrective plan by early August, which is expected to, at the very least, restore yearly inspections.

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6 thoughts on “New Caltrans Audit Finds Agency Failed To Give Adequate Inspections Of Freeways

  1. Why should any of us be shocked.
    Wonder if the Governor Grim Reaper will address this in his delayed State of the State?
    Los Angeles has never looked so bad in all the years I have seen it and most of this destruction has happened under his reign and yes it is a reign.
    But hey Caltrans should really focus on pronoun usage!

    1. Yeah, CG, no kidding. Pronoun usage, hiring friends and relatives, and pretending to be busy and productive on the highways in an election year.

  2. So In the past 15 years, only 5 inspections were given and inspections were ignored in the last several years with Democrats in almost complete control? No doubt Caltrans senior management were instead focused on handing out contracts to those connected with the Democrat party along with diversity, equity, climate change, LGBTQ+, etc.?

    Will Caltrans Director Tony Tavares be held accountable? He has been in senior Caltrans management for years. He was appointed the 34th Director Caltrans by Newsom and sworn in June 2022. Prior to that he served as Director of Caltrans District 7, which encompasses expansive Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Prior to overseeing District 7, he served as Caltrans Bay Area Director (District 4) where he was instrumental in implementing California’s landmark Senate Bill 1 (SB1), the Road Repair and Accountability Act. From 2010 to 2018, Director Tavares served as the statewide Division Chief for Maintenance.

    If anyone needs to be held accountable for the I-10 freeway disaster, it should be Caltrans Director Tony Tavares? Maybe California Globe should have a picture of him to accompany the article?


    1. Great info, TJ.
      We have to wonder, after the Office of the Inspector General for Caltrans released their audit, are the areas underneath and near the freeways NOW being inspected regularly for safety violations and cleared of camping vagrants who build fires and the stacks of pallets (fire hazards and presumably also used to build vagrant fires) and God only knows what else? I’m betting the answer is NO.

      1. Yeah, I would say NO,
        All one needs to do is drive on a freeway look to underpasses and see the make shift habitats! Oakland is the worst!
        Railways are also not being monitored. Each agency points the finger of blame at one another!
        Great info T J, I always appreciate the facts you bring.

        1. With you, Cali Girl, and since as you know the vagrants love to set fires (and not always for warmth and cooking, either), we should all expect more trouble under the freeways and by the railways! Especially because even though in 2021 LA Fire Dept reported 24 fires a day had been set by the homeless, that number has since increased to 38 A DAY, according to LAFD, in a recent May 9, 2024 report by local NBC4. And it may be more if LAFD cannot verify the source of any particular fire. And by the way that is only City of L.A. proper and doesn’t include the much much larger L.A. County.

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