Pallet Fire Leads to ‘Significant’ Challenge, Potential Long-Term Closure of 10 Freeway in Downtown L.A.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and crews assess fire damage on the Santa Monica (10) Fwy through downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy Karen Bass/X.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and crews assess fire damage on the Santa Monica (10) Fwy through downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy Karen Bass/X.

Local and state officials braced the public Sunday for a potential long-term closure of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency to help facilitate cleanup and repairs following a damaging pallet yard fire.

Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass toured the site Sunday and appeared with transportation officials at an early-afternoon briefing, where they offered no timetable for reopening the freeway, but promised a “24/7” operation and stressed that every possible effort was being made to hasten the safety evaluation and initiate the needed repairs.

A top Caltrans official termed it a “significant” challenge.

The freeway remains closed in both directions between Alameda Street and Santa Fe Avenue, with the closure also affecting connectors to Interstate 5 and the Hollywood (101) and Pomona (60) freeways.

Newsom said the on-site investigation into the cause of the fire would conclude by 6 a.m. Monday, allowing for more complete hazmat work to proceed.

The governor said the initial assessment showed that “dozens and dozens of columns” have been damaged, but the freeway’s bridge deck was the primary focus.

“Our ability to rebuild columns is a much shorter time period than the bridge deck itself,” he said.

Newsom also revealed that the party leasing the property where the pallet yard caught on fire early Saturday was in violation of the terms of their lease, and added that litigation is ongoing in the case. Newsom said more details would be provided later, but he mentioned that the lease had expired, and the party in question is suspected of sub-leasing the property.

The governor also noted that the fire occurred at the same site where he and other officials attended a recent cleanup of a homeless encampment in the area.

Newsom’s emergency order directs Caltrans to request assistance through the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program. He said Sunday that no regulations would impede the efforts to reopen the freeway, noting that with over 300,000 people using the road daily, it holds “significant consequence to the economy and the health and safety of Angelenos.”

He added that 2 million pounds of steel was available to move in immediately while officials assess broader supply chain issues.

“The answer is yes. I don’t even care what the question is — the answer is yes, in terms of what her (Bass) needs are, and what the county’s needs are” Newsom said.

Bass said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called Saturday evening and said the White House “stands with us, and there will be no obstacle that stands in our way.”

The mayor cited the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the massive efforts that followed to repair area freeways.

“This structure damage calls for the same urgency and effort,” she said.

“I have directed all city departments to urgently respond to the impacts of this closure by ensuring that there is a plan for the hundreds of thousands of Angelenos who commute or live by this incident, and I am in touch with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Governor Newsom and our state partners to ensure that there are no barriers to getting this portion of the 10 Freeway up and running as fast as possible,” Bass said in a statement.

“While the repairs are being made, it is my top priority that we provide as much information as possible to ensure that our communities, our commuters, our businesses and all those who are impacted by this are well informed each step of the way.”

On the eve of Monday morning’s rush hour commute, officials urged the public to avoid the area as much as possible, and to plan to use alternate transportation including LA Metro.

For motorists who must traverse the downtown area, Laura Rubio- Cornejo, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said traffic officers were at the scene since Saturday morning to inform and assist drivers.

Rubio-Cornejo said motorists on I-10 were generally asked not to exit the freeway onto downtown surface streets, but to transfer to the 110, 101 or 5 freeways. The primary exit and entrance to downtown LA is Seventh Street.

Doug Young, an assistant chief with the CHP, provided the following freeway detours:

— drivers on eastbound I-10 will be diverted at Alameda Street;

— drivers on the westbound 60 will be diverted to northbound I-5 or northbound 101;

— drivers on southbound I-5 will be diverted onto the westbound I-10 but must take the first exit at Mateo Street;

— drivers on northbound I-5 must divert to the northbound 101.

Residents were advised to visit emergency.lacity.gov for updates.

The initial fire was reported at 12:22 a.m. Saturday 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 and was 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. Saturday, pallets in both yards were mostly consumed by the flames and firefighters were using bulldozers to move debris and put out hot spots.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power assisted by boosting water pressure in the area for the high volume needed. The agency also dealt with a cross arm of energized high-tension wire that fell on 14th Street.

Firefighters successfully prevented the fire from spreading to three nearby commercial buildings, Stewart said. No injuries were reported.

Caltrans District 7 spokeswoman Lauren Wonder told City News Service on Saturday that hazardous materials specialists would determine whether the pallets were coated with toxic substances and to identify contents of 55-gallon drums on the site.

Caltrans engineers will only be allowed to assess freeway damage after the site is safe, Wonder said.

“They will test the concrete to see if it rings rather than makes a thud sound,” she said. That is how the engineers will determine the integrity of the pillars and bridge deck.

Caltrans said Sunday that samples were taken Saturday night and submitted to a lab, and structural engineers will begin more detailed work immediately.

LAFD Chief Kristin Crowley said the span of the fire incident was 8 acres, and that 164 firefighters worked through the night to put the flames out.

Crowley said Sunday that “while the freeway closure will be a challenge for our city,” she was “confident in the teamwork” of LAPD Chief Michel Moore, Bass, Caltrans, the CHP, Los Angeles Department of Transportation and ReadyLA “to effectively and safely carry us through. Thank you to @CAgovernor for the support.”