State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards at a leased storage space under an elevated Los Angeles freeway before it was engulfed in an arson fire, documents show.
The Nov. 11 fire, fueled by combustible materials stored under the road in violation of the company’s lease, closed a portion of Interstate 10 near downtown for days, snarling traffic as crews in repair worked around the clock to fix it. Officials said all lanes are expected to reopen Tuesday.
The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, released the documents Friday, a day before investigators said they had identified a “person of interest” and released two photos of a ” crime alert notice” posted on social media. Authorities said Saturday they are asking for the public’s help in identifying the man.
While investigators have not yet 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 currently under review. Governor Gavin Newsom said the state will re-examine the practice of leasing land under roads to bring in money for mass transportation projects.
Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to join Newsom, Mayor Karen Bass and other officials Sunday morning in Los Angeles to publicly address the fire response and repair work.
Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a condition of the contract stipulates that it not allow flammable or hazardous materials to be stored there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since in early 2020 and flagged problematic conditions for years.
“This is a filthy unsustainable lease,” inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oil, gasoline and other prohibited substances. of the agreement. “This place has been in use since the mid-1970s and it looks like this.”
The owners of two of the companies that sublease the property say they also warn of fire hazards and other risks associated with homeless people living under the freeway. . Newsom previously said that while subleasing would be legal if the company received approval from state and federal regulators, Apex was not.
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 most recent state inspection of the premises, which took place more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but documents released last Friday did not list additional details.
Caltrans “has notified Apex Development of the need to address violations, particularly those that create safety hazards,” the agency said in a statement.
Mainak D’Attaray, a lawyer for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company is not to blame for the fire and has made improvements to the property. He said the company had not been able to access the area since October.
“Apex leased and renovated the rundown yard and made significant capital investments during the time it owned the yard,” D’Attaray said in a statement. “Caltrans inspects the premises periodically, at least once a year, and CalTrans is fully aware of the sublessees and their operations. Even the California State Fire Marshall inspects the premises.
D’Attaray did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Izzy Gordon, the governor’s spokeswoman, earlier this week disagreed with D’Attaray’s statement that Apex was not to blame, saying the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, believed it was arson. “in a fence. -off area that Apex is responsible for maintaining while they continue to assert 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 throughout California” when asked Saturday for a response to state of the inspection documents and the next steps in the process. . Richards did not say whether anyone at Caltrans faced discipline.
Regarding the person of interest in the arson case, the governor’s office urged anyone with information about the incident or suspect to contact the tip hotline.
The individual is described as a 30- to 35-year-old man, about 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and weighing between 170 pounds (77 kilograms) and 190 pounds (86 kilograms). Details of how he was identified were not immediately released.
The photos show him wearing blue shorts, a black hooded sweatshirt, a green scarf and a brace on his right knee. The individual was carrying a backpack and “appeared to have visible burn injuries” on his left leg, the bulletin said.
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 to a request for comment Saturday.
No one was reported injured in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in a camp there were taken to shelters.
Approximately 300,000 vehicles use the wide freeway every day, which runs east-west across the heart of the metropolis and connects to other major highways. The city urged people to avoid the area, take buses and trains or work from home.
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