U.S. investigators have determined as arson a weekend fire that severely damaged an elevated stretch of a major Los Angeles freeway and forced its indefinite closure, state officials said on Monday.
The findings came as California Governor Gavin Newsom revealed that the state had recently sued to evict the company that was leasing storage space on state property beneath the Santa Monica Freeway where the fire began early on Saturday.
But the governor said nothing to suggest the arson investigation was related to the eviction action or to any of the lease violations alleged by the state.
Newsom and state Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant told reporters that investigators were still seeking to identify the person or persons who set the blaze, and they appealed for the public’s help in identifying anyone responsible.
Berlant said investigators “have been able to confidently determine that the fire was caused by arson”. He declined to give more details about how investigators reached their conclusion or about how precisely the fire was ignited.
Some 300,000 vehicles ply the Santa Monica Freeway daily, with downtown L.A. often congested under normal circumstances, so that detours from the closure were expected to ripple out and compound heavy traffic across the metropolitan area.
The closure was one of the area’s most consequential transportation disruptions since the January 1994 Northridge earthquake flattened two parts of the same freeway, and it was likely to last several days or longer, Mayor Karen Bass said.
Laura Rubio-Cornejo, general manager of the Transportation Department, said motorists largely seemed to be minding advisories urging them avoid downtown streets and to use public transit or work from home when possible.
“The congestion was a little better than normal,” Rubio-Cornejo said.
Even so, roads in and around downtown were jam-packed, according to local media, and even minor traffic accidents could quickly trigger gridlock.
The damaged section of freeway, also known as the east-west Interstate 10 – or “the 10” – was closed in both directions at a point between two other freeways vital to getting around Los Angeles, where traveling by car is the norm.
The flames, which damaged more than 100 support columns and the freeway deck, spread through storage yards beneath the freeway overpass filled with stacks of wood pallets, containers and parked vehicles, authorities said.
Engineers analyzed samples of concrete and steel rebar from the damaged structure to determine whether the stricken portion of the freeway can be safely repaired or needs to go through the lengthier, costlier process of being demolished and rebuilt.
Newsom said preliminary sampling showed the structural integrity of the freeway deck “appears to be much stronger than originally assessed” and that final test results determining how to proceed were expected early Tuesday.
Newsom identified the leaseholder for state-owned property beneath the freeway that burned as Apex Development Inc, based in Calabasas, California, north of Los Angeles.
He said the company had quit paying rent and was violating the terms of its lease, including the unauthorized sub-leasing of the space to as many as five other entities.
The governor said a court hearing was expected in January or February on the state’s filing of an unlawful detainer, a notice of eviction. Apex did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on Monday.
Bass said there was no indication of a connection between the blaze and a nearby homeless encampment of about 16 people.
Newsom on Sunday proclaimed a state of emergency in Los Angeles County in order to expedite repairs to the freeway. While touring the damage, the governor vowed to get the highway reopened as quickly as possible.