Santa Monica Freeway reopens after fire damage

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Additional ramps in the area of a fire that forced a weeklong closure of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway near downtown were reopened in time for the morning commute Nov. 22.

According to Caltrans, the westbound 10 Freeway off-ramp to Alameda Street and the westbound on-ramp from Santa Fe Avenue/Mateo Street/East Eighth Street are ready to reopen.

“The shoring below the Alameda Street off-ramp is complete and safety inspections confirmed it can be open to traffic,” according to a statement from Caltrans. “This is still a construction zone, and the speed limit on the off-ramp is reduced from the normal 35 mph to 25 mph until further notice. Caltrans reminds motorists that traffic fines are doubled in work zones.”

Motorists exiting the freeway at Alameda will be able to proceed west on 14th Street, but 14th remains closed westbound between Lawrence and Alameda streets due to continuing repair work.

Lawrence Street remains closed between 14th and 10th streets.

Caltrans said the overall repair work will likely continue for months, despite the freeway already being reopened to traffic.

The stretch of freeway between Alameda and the East L.A. Interchange was closed in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, when a fire erupted in the storage yards beneath the roadway, putting the freeway’s structural integrity into question.

The freeway, which carries an estimated 300,000 cars per day, reopened Nov. 19, despite earlier estimates that the repair work would take three to five weeks. Caltrans noted that some or all lanes on the 10 Freeway could be closed in the area at times, primarily at night, to complete the repair work.

“Traffic is now flowing on five lanes in each direction between Alameda Street and the East Los Angeles interchange … before the Thanksgiving holiday, reducing the disruption to Los Angeles commuters,” said a statement from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office issued Nov. 19.

However, the statement continued, “As repairs continue over the coming months, the public should expect some temporary closures on occasional weekends and overnight, along with intermittent lane closures.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in an update Nov. 20 the freeway will be continuously monitored to ensure it remains safe for commuters. Manual daily surveys will be conducted to monitor any structural shifts or movements.

Standing on the still-closed freeway, Bass, Gov. Newsom, Sen. Alex Padilla and Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters at a news conference Nov. 19 that workers should be praised for completing much of the work several days ahead of schedule and hailing the cooperation of government officials at all levels.

“This is a great day in our city, and I think it is a wonderful example of how and why we got this job done,” Bass said. “First and foremost, the workforce that worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The numbers of workers on the site here, who doubled and tripled as everyone came together, showing the unity from the White House to the governor, to our senator, all of us standing together to make sure that this got done.”

Padilla said Angelenos “don’t have to wait for Thursday to give thanks for the opening … of the I-10 Freeway, for folks who are working this week, folks who’ll be traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, and to give thanks to all the workers who made this possible. We can’t thank them enough.”

California’s senior Democratic senator said that although officials don’t yet know the final price tag for the repairs, the entire cost will be covered by federal funds, “thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed and signed a couple of years ago.”

Padilla estimated that the cost would be in the $3 million range, and Newsom later said it was “in the low millions.”

Newsom praised the workers and contracting company and said 10,000 hours of labor went into the effort to get the freeway open in eight days.    

“It was a week or so ago that we were here, not knowing if we would be here at this moment announcing the reopening for six more months. We were talking about replacing this structure, we were talking about this historic fire that took out about roughly 100 columns — four or five particularly severely — we were talking about replacing a large portion of this freeway,” Newsom said.

“You can be assured of one thing: Safety first … it wasn’t just speed that we were after, we wanted to make sure this thing was safe,” the governor added.

Newsom said permanent fixes to the freeway would occur over several weeks or months and would require “episodic closures,” but those are not expected to significantly impact the daily commute.

In the aftermath of the fire, after results from initial testing came back, Newsom had initially estimated that the freeway would reopen in three to five weeks, while expressing the hope that workers might beat that deadline.

State officials said Nov. 15 that contractors had removed all of the debris and hazardous materials from beneath the damaged freeway stretch.

Caltrans officials said about 264,000 cubic feet of material was removed, enough to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools. More than two dozen burned vehicles also were removed from the area.

That work was completed two days ahead of schedule.

There were more than 250 people working at the jobsite on 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, officials said.

Harris called the project “extraordinary,” said it was the function of workers on the ground who “understood what closure of the 10 would mean to folks on a daily basis, and their commitment as public servants, as union members, to get this thing done. We can give the fancy speeches all day long, but we’re able to stand here and do this because they did this work on the ground.”

On Nov. 18, Cal Fire released photos and a description of a person of interest in connection with the fire they believe was intentionally set, igniting within the fenceline of a storage yard below the freeway on Nov. 11.

The suspect was described as a 6-foot tall man weighing 170 to 190 pounds with black hair. He appears to be between 30 and 35 years old, and his race is unknown. He possibly has a burn on his left leg. The man was photographed wearing a black hoodie, blue shorts, gray shoes, green scarf and a knee brace on his right knee. He was also carrying a dark-colored backpack.

The initial fire was reported at 12:22 a.m. Nov. 11 in the 1700 block of East 14th Street, two blocks west of Alameda Street, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Margaret Stewart.

Firefighters from 26 companies worked feverishly to contain and extinguish the major emergency fire, which started in one downtown pallet yard, spread to another and consumed a fire engine that became stuck in its path, Stewart said.

The first pallet yard was 40,000 square feet in size and fully involved with flames that engulfed multiple trailers when firefighters arrived. The flames spread to the second pallet yard of similar size between Lawrence and Elwood streets.

Stewart said that by 2:33 a.m., pallets in both yards were mostly consumed by the flames and firefighters were using bulldozers to move debris and put out hot spots. Firefighters successfully prevented the fire from spreading to three nearby commercial buildings, she said.

The company that leases the property where the fire occurred, Calabasas-based Apex Development, is being sued by the state for failure to pay rent and violating the terms of its lease, in part by subleasing the property to other businesses and by allowing flammable materials to be stored on the land. That lawsuit was filed long before the fire erupted.

Newsom said that the state had taken over four of Apex’s five leases, with only one remaining in Sun Valley. He added that a court hearing in the case is expected in January or early February.

Caltrans is reviewing all similar leases to determine whether other companies might be violating lease terms.

Bass said she has asked all city general managers to report if their agencies have any active leases of property beneath the freeway.