State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards at a rented storage space under an elevated Los Angeles highway before it burned in an arson attack last weekend, according to officials. documents.
The fire – fueled by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of the company’s lease – has closed a stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown for days, blocking traffic while repair crews work 24 hours a day to repair it. Officials say all lanes should reopen by Tuesday.
The documents were released Friday by the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, a day before investigators said they had identified a “person of interest” and released two photos in a “traffic alert notification.” crime” published on social networks. Authorities said Saturday they were seeking the public’s help in identifying the person.
Although 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 highway in a little-known program that is currently under scrutiny. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week the state would reevaluate the practice of leasing land under roads to generate money for 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, state inspectors – who visited the site six times since early 2020 – reported problematic conditions for years.
“This is a dirty, unmaintained lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report following a surprise inspection that discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items prohibited by the agreement. “This area has been used since the mid-1970s and it looks like it.”
The owners of two of the companies that sublet the property said they also warned of the risk of fire and other dangers from homeless people living under the highway. Newsom has previously said that while subleasing may be legal if the company receives permission from state and federal regulators, that is not the case for Apex.
In September, state officials filed a lawsuit against Apex, claiming it owed $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled for next year.
The state’s most recent spot inspection — which took place a little more than a month before the Nov. 11 fire — found “numerous lease violations,” but documents released Friday did not provide additional details.
Caltrans has “informed Apex Development of the need to address the violations, particularly those creating safety hazards,” the agency said in a statement.
Mainak D’Attaray, an attorney for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company was not responsible for the fire and had in fact made improvements to the property. He said the company had not been able to access the premises since October.
“Apex leased and improved the dilapidated yard and made significant capital investments during its ownership,” D’Attaray said in a statement. “Caltrans inspected the premises periodically, at least annually, and CalTrans was fully aware of the subtenants and their operations. Even the California State Fire Marshal inspected the premises.”
D’Attaray did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
A spokesperson for the governor 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 the fire was caused by arson “in a fenced area which Apex was responsible for maintaining while continuing to enforce its rights under the lease.
Izzy Gordon, the spokesperson, did not immediately comment Saturday in response to the inspection documents or whether anyone at Caltrans was facing disciplinary action.
Regarding the “person of interest” in the arson case, the governor’s office urged “anyone with information about this incident or suspect” to contact a hotline.
The individual was described as a man between 30 and 35 years old, approximately 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 photographs show him wearing blue shorts, a black hooded sweatshirt, a green scarf and a brace on his right knee. The individual is wearing a backpack and “appears to have visible burns” on his left leg, the bulletin said.
The photographs 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 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 use this stretch of highway daily, which runs east-west through the heart of the metropolis and is connected to other major highways. The city urged people to avoid the neighborhood, take buses and trains or work from home.