California Gov. Gavin Newson said Monday afternoon that the fire that closed the I-10 freeway in Los Angeles is being investigated as arson.
Newsom broke the news at a news conference about the incident along with Mayor Karen Bass.
With I-10 — a major east-west artery in Los Angeles — shut down in both directions, Bass suggested locals take alternate routes, work from home or take the subway.
“We will get the 10 freeway up and running as soon as possible,” she said during the press conference.
Over the weekend, commuters in Los Angeles began bracing for an all-day traffic nightmare Monday after I-10 was shut down indefinitely by a massive fire that broke out over the weekend at a warehouse.
The 10 Freeway, crossed by more than 300,000 drivers daily, remained closed in both directions as authorities suggested a series of detours and announced there is no timeline for when the main thoroughfare through downtown Los Angeles will reopen.
“As we made clear yesterday, this was an enormous fire and the damage will not be repaired overnight,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said during a news conference Monday morning. “Engineers have been working through the night and are working right now to determine our path forward.”
On Sunday, Bass said, “There’s no reason to think this is going to be over in a few days.”
“We can’t give you a time estimate right now,” Bass said of when the highway might reopen.
Bass told commuters earlier Monday to expect epic traffic jams similar to what was seen after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a magnitude 6.7 tremor that collapsed several Los Angeles-area freeways.
“For those of you who remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans [the California Department of Transportation] worked around the clock to complete emergency highway repairs — and this structural damage requires the same level of urgency and effort,” Bass said.
The fire broke out under the 10 Freeway just after midnight Saturday, tearing through several wooden pallets, trailers and vehicles stored under the elevated interstate, officials said. The fire sent thick smoke and towering flames into the sky, challenging more than 160 firefighters who responded to extinguish the blaze.
The out-of-control fire burned for three hours and spread over what authorities described as the equivalent of six football fields before it was extinguished. About 16 homeless people living under the freeway were evacuated to shelters, officials said.
Mayor Bass said Monday afternoon that no information other than arson is known as the suspected cause of the fire. She also urged people not to jump to conclusions.
“There is no reason to believe that the origin of this fire or the reason this fire happened was that there were homeless people around,” she said, adding, “I want you to know that we are working to resolve this crisis.”
Caltrans officials said crews are still assessing the damage to pillars and support beams under the freeway, but could not say when it would be cleared to reopen. Hazardous materials teams are also clearing burnt material from the site.
“We’re seeing a lot of … concrete that’s flaking off the columns. The underside of the bridge deck may be compromised,” said Lauren Wonder, a Caltrans spokeswoman. “It’s kind of a wait and see situation right now. We don’t have an estimated time of opening, but Caltrans wants to make sure this bridge is safe to put traffic back on it.”
Newsom declared a state of emergency to help facilitate cleanup and repairs to the highway.
“Remember, this is an investigation into the cause of how this happened, as well as a hazmat and structural engineering issue,” Newsom said earlier. “Can you open a few lanes? Can you retrofit the pillars? Is the bridge deck intact so a few lanes can stay open again?”
Rafael Molina, deputy district director for the division of traffic at the California Department of Transportation, said Monday morning that there were early indications that commuters were heeding the warnings.
“Looking at the traffic data earlier this morning, I’m kind of happy to say the congestion was a little bit lighter than normal,” Molina said. “But please, if you don’t need to be in downtown Los Angeles, please avoid these trips.”
Transportation officials said the storage area that caught fire is leased by a private company.
California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin said officials are reevaluating whether to continue allowing storage spaces under highways, but noted that such sites are common across the state and nation.