LOS ANGELES (AP) — State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety risks at a rented storage space beneath an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it burned in an arson attack last weekend, documents show.
The fire, fueled by flammable materials stored under the road 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 Tuesday.
The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, released the documents on Friday, a day before investigators said they identified a “person of interest” and released two photographs in a “crime alert notice” posted on the social networks. Authorities said Saturday they are seeking the public’s help in identifying the person.
While investigators have not said how the fire started, the fire was fueled by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items stored under the freeway under a little-known program that is now under scrutiny. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that the state will reevaluate the practice of leasing land under highways to generate money for mass transit projects.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a condition of the contract stated that it did not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and noted problematic conditions. for years.
“This is a dirty, unmaintained lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report following a surprise inspection that uncovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items prohibited by the agreement. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and it appears that way.”
The owners of two of the businesses that subleased the property said they had also warned about fire danger and other dangers related to homeless people living under the freeway. Newsom previously said that while subletting may be legal if the company receives permission from state and federal regulators, Apex did not do so.
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 inspection, which occurred a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but documents released Friday do not list additional details.
Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those that create safety risks,” 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 that it had made improvements to the property. He said the company has not been able to access the premises since October.
“Apex leased and improved the deteriorating yard and made significant capital investments during the period it owned it,” D’Attaray said in a statement. “Caltrans inspected the facilities periodically, at least annually, and CalTrans was fully aware of the subtenants and their operations. Even the California State Fire Marshal inspected the facility.”
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 and said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, believes which was caused by arson “in a fenced area.” -exclusion area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to enforce rights under the lease.”
Brandon Richards, another spokesman for Newsom, reiterated the governor’s directive for Caltrans to “launch a comprehensive review of all leased sites under freeways in California” when asked Saturday about the state’s response to inspection documents and the next steps in the process. Richards did not mention whether anyone at Caltrans faces disciplinary action.
Regarding the person of interest in the arson case, the governor’s office urged anyone with information about the incident or suspect to contact a tip hotline.
The individual was described as a man between 30 and 35 years old, who was approximately 1.83 meters (6 feet) tall and weighed between 77 kilograms (170 pounds) and 86 kilograms (190 pounds). Details about how he was identified were not immediately released.
Photos show him wearing blue shorts, a black hoodie, a green scarf and a brace on his right knee. The individual was carrying a backpack and “appears to have visible burns” on his left leg, the bulletin states.
The photos were released by Cal Fire and the State Fire Marshal, whose office is investigating the fire. The mayor’s office also did not respond Saturday to a request for comment.
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment were taken to shelters.
An estimated 300,000 vehicles daily use the stretch of highway, which runs east-west through the heart of the metropolis and connects to other major highways. The city has urged people to avoid the area, take buses and trains or work from home.