LA FIRE CODE - California governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County Saturday to facilitate cleanup and repairs after a massive storage fire shut down a mile-long section of Interstate 10 in downtown Los Angeles. The I-10 is one of L.A. County’s most-traveled freeways, with nearly 300,000 vehicles passing daily; it was not the only road affected by the fire. Officials closed connecting routes running north, south, east, and west, leaving commuters scrambling to find alternatives and creating traffic well beyond the mile-long closure.
The fire was reported shortly after midnight Saturday morning after a storage yard under the freeway caught fire and spread to a second yard, burning eight acres and damaging the freeway overpass. It displaced 16 homeless residents living below the underpass and destroyed several vehicles, including a firetruck. Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) officials said that firefighters from 26 companies and one helicopter responded to the blaze and kept it from reaching nearby commercial buildings.
Traffic is a major political issue in sprawling Los Angeles, of course, and the rush to rebuild the freeway began immediately. Inspectors found that the road is salvageable, with a repair timeline of three-to-five weeks, though the costs of such repairs are still unknown.
Saturday’s fire resulted in the Southland’s most notable freeway closure since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which buckled portions of I-10 and other routes. Contractors worked seven days a week, including holidays, and the freeway opened again 84 days later. Mayor Karen Bass has said that the city will apply the same level of urgency to these repairs. Unlike the Northridge earthquake, however, this fire and the resulting damage were entirely preventable.
Some local media claim that Saturday’s fire started at a homeless encampment and spread to a nearby storage facility, while others reported it started within the storage facility before spreading to the homeless encampment. Regardless of the fire’s source, the city’s failure to enforce the fire code and clear homeless encampments of dangerous debris clearly contributed to the incident. The streets that eventually caught fire were once adorned with tents and makeshift plywood structures, resembling Third World shanty towns. Cardboard, refuse, and debris were piled up ten feet high, with rolled-up carpets, soiled mattresses, and other materials strewn across the streets. The proliferation of recreational vehicles, which have occupied city streets in large numbers since March 2020, also likely contributed to the fire’s intensity. As these encampments expanded, so did the accumulation of highly combustible items in their owners’ possession, including gas-powered generators for electricity and air conditioning, barbecue pits, cooking grills, and propane tanks.
City, county, state, and federal officials have long known about these hazards but consistently have failed to act. The 2017 Skirball fire, in which an illicit cooking flame set a homeless encampment in the Bel Air vicinity of Los Angeles ablaze, made clear the dangers of these encampments. That fire consumed 422 acres of land on the slopes of Sepulveda Pass, leading to the closure of Interstate 405, a pivotal city thoroughfare. Then, in 2021, a blaze in a Venice Beach homeless encampment destroyed a 7,000-square-foot commercial building on Ocean Front Walk. Officials determined that a cooking accident was to blame and made no arrests.
A 2021 Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that more than 54 percent of all fires requiring an LAFD response are associated with homelessness. That’s the equivalent of more than 24 fires every day. Notably, arson-related fires consistently constitute approximately one-third of overall incidents, rising along with homeless-related fire incidents. The city’s arson clearance rate is a dismal 6 percent, meaning that most perpetrators go unpunished.
Of the LAFD’s $854 million annual budget, roughly $427 million is spent on homeless-related fires. Property owners whose buildings have been threatened by these conflagrations complain of the city’s neglect. If Los Angeles simply enforced its existing fire code, it would protect those businesses and save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Mayor Bass has yet to specify what measures, if any, she plans to implement to mitigate future fire risks. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, less than four days after the I-10 incident, commuters reported active flames, with yet another blaze erupting beneath yet another freeway. The flames once again seem to have originated from an adjacent homeless encampment. It’s reasonable to ask Mayor Bass and Governor Newsom what they plan to do to address those encampments before any federal funds get allocated toward repairs. California is burning on their watch.
(Soledad Ursúa is a finance professional and elected board member of the Venice Neighborhood Council. She holds an M.S. from The New School for Management and Urban Policy and can be found on Twitter.) Photo by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images