Investigators found fire and safety hazards on land under I-10 in Los Angeles before arson fire

LOS ANGELES — State investigators repeatedly identified fire and safety hazards in a rented storage facility under an elevated freeway in Los Angeles before it caught fire last weekend, documents show.

The fire, fueled by flammable materials stored under the roadway in violation of the company’s lease, closed a stretch of Interstate 10 near downtown for days, disrupting traffic as repair crews worked around the clock to fix the problem. Officials say 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 in a “crime alert” posted on social media. Authorities said Saturday they are seeking the public’s help in identifying the person.

Although investigators have not said how the fire started, it was fueled by pallets, cars, building materials, hand sanitizer and other items stored under the highway under a little-known program that is now under scrutiny. Governor Gavin Newsom said this week that the state will reassess the practice of leasing land under roads to raise money for mass transit projects.

Apex Development Inc. has leased the land under I-10 since 2008. Although a term of the contract stated that it would not allow flammable or hazardous materials to be stored there, state inspectors have visited the site six times since the start of 2020 and found problematic conditions for years.

“This is a filthy, unkept lease,” Inspector Daryl Myatt wrote in a 2022 report after a surprise inspection discovered solvents, oils, fuels and other items prohibited by the agreement. “This area has been in use since the mid-1970s and looks like this.”

Owners of two of the businesses that sublet the property said they had also warned of fire hazards and other hazards associated with homeless people living under the highway. Newsom previously said that while subleasing could be legal if the company received approval from state and federal regulators, Apex did not.

In September, government officials filed a lawsuit against Apex, saying the company owes $78,000 in unpaid rent. A hearing is scheduled for next year.

The state’s most recent on-site inspection, which took place just over a month before the Nov. 11 fire, found “numerous lease violations,” but the documents released Friday provided no additional details.

Caltrans had “informed Apex Development of the need to address violations, especially those that pose safety risks,” the agency said in a statement.

Mainak D’Attaray, attorney for Apex Development, said Wednesday that the company is not responsible for the fire and has made improvements to the property. He said the company has not had access to the property since October.

“Apex leased and improved the dilapidated yard and made significant capital investments during the period it owned the yard,” D’Attaray said in a statement. “Caltrans inspected the property periodically, at least once a year, and CalTrans was fully aware of the subtenants and their activities. Even the California State Fire Marshall inspected the property.”

D’Attaray did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

Izzy Gordon, a spokesperson for the governor, disagreed earlier this week with D’Attaray’s statement that Apex is not to blame, saying the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, believes the fire was caused by arson “in a fenced area”. -off area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while continuing to assert its rights under the lease.”

Brandon Richards, another spokesman for Newsom, reiterated the governor’s directive to Caltrans “to launch a comprehensive review of all leased sites along highways throughout California” when asked Saturday about the state’s response to the inspection documents and the next steps in the process. Richards did not address whether anyone at Caltrans would face disciplinary action.

As for the person of interest in the arson case, the governor’s office urged anyone with information about the incident or the suspect to contact a tip hotline.

The individual was described as a man between 30 and 35 years old, approximately 6 feet 9 inches tall and weighing between 170 pounds (77 kilograms) and 190 pounds (86 kilograms). Details on 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 person was wearing a backpack and “appears to have visible burns” on the 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 on Saturday.

No injuries were reported in the fire, but at least 16 homeless people living in an encampment there were taken to shelters.

An estimated 300,000 vehicles use the stretch of highway every day, which runs from east to 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.