By Christopher Weber and Stefanie Dazio | Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles drivers returned to a much more normal commute Monday when an elevated stretch of a major freeway reopened well ahead of original estimates following an arson fire that shut down the roadway for more than a week.
The section of Interstate 10 south of downtown reopened Sunday night, and authorities assured commuters that the freeway is safe after emergency work to shore up the structure until permanent repairs of scorched support columns can be completed.
The interstate carries about 300,000 vehicles a day and connects to other major routes.
The early morning inferno on Nov. 11 was fed by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of a company’s lease.
Initial worst-case scenarios raised the possibility that the section of freeway might have to be demolished and rebuilt. Officials then said tests showed it could be repaired in three to five weeks and that, with massive bracing in place, traffic could return much sooner.
“It wasn’t just speed that we were after. We wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Sunday news conference, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Mayor Karen Bass.
Most of the repair work will be done underneath the road deck, but future lane closures were possible, officials said. Some freeway ramps and nearby streets remained closed.
The Federal Highway Administration provided $3 million in “quick release” funds to repair the damage and said additional funds would be available from its emergency relief program.
Investigators have not said how the fire was started. On Saturday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the state fire marshal’s office said they are seeking help locating a “person of interest” and released two photos on social media showing a man in his 30s with a brace on his right knee and apparent burn injuries on his left leg.
State investigators had identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under the interstate several times before it burned in the fire, documents show.
The blaze was fed by pallets, cars, construction materials, hand sanitizer and other items being stored under the freeway as part of a program that now is under scrutiny. Newsom has said the state will reassess the practice of leasing such lands.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although one condition of the contract stipulated that it not allow the storage of flammable or hazardous materials there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.
Owners of two of the companies that subleased the property said they also had warned of a fire danger and other hazards related to homeless people living under the freeway.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex saying it owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled for next year.
Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those creating safety hazards,” the agency said in a statement.
No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.