March 5, 2024

Drivers in Los Angeles who use one of the busiest freeways in the area will need to change their travel plans for an indefinite period of time as authorities assess the damage from a fire early Saturday that shut down part of an interstate downtown.

All lanes in a nearly two-mile stretch of Interstate 10 will be closed until further notice, Caltrans, the state’s transportation department, confirmed on Sunday. The agency is aiming to send in structural engineers to assess the damage as soon as it is safe for them to do so.

The section is one of the busiest stretches of the interstate, just west of the East Los Angeles Interchange, where several freeways come together. About 260,000 vehicles use the freeway for daily commuting between Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., according to government data. And it is a major conduit connecting Southern California ports to the rest of the country, carrying about 20,000 trucks daily.

While Interstate 10 remains closed between Alameda Street and Santa Fe Avenue, officials said that people planning to attend major sporting events in or around downtown Los Angeles should plan for delays and check for alternative routes.

More than 160 firefighters worked for several hours to extinguish the blaze, which was reported in the early morning hours on Saturday at a storage yard that housed wood pallets, abandoned vehicles, car parts and shipping containers. The flames quickly spread to another storage yard, and a nearby encampment for unhoused people was evacuated. No deaths or injuries were reported, Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The intense flames battered columns supporting the highway, melted some guardrails and caused chunks of concrete to fall from the overpass, photos and video show. A few vehicles, including a fire engine, were damaged, fire officials said.

The closure prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency on Saturday night, as officials scrambled to assess the damage and organize repair work.

“The state is mobilizing resources and taking steps to ensure any necessary repairs are completed as soon as possible to minimize the impact on those traveling in and around Los Angeles,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement on Saturday.

In her own statement, Ms. Bass likened the level of structural damage to that of an earthquake in 1994, during which Caltrans “worked around the clock” for repairs to the freeways.

The mayor also said that she had spoken with Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. secretary of transportation, who told her that the White House is ready to support the city’s additional infrastructure needs.

The effects of the closure were already evident on the streets near the freeway. A strong smell of fire hung in the air midmorning on Sunday near the Alameda Street exit, with some frustrated motorists honking as traffic backed up.

Business at a Shell gas station at the 14th Street exit, part of the closed section, was already down, approximately 50 percent, in the last 24 hours, according to Alexander Shenouda, the manager. Mr. Shenouda, 40, said some workers on the interstate told him it could be weeks before the exit reopens.

On Sunday, Mr. Newsom and Ms. Bass visited the site, examining the damage under the overpass off the 14th Street exit.

According to the government data, this section is much busier than the part of a highway in northeast Philadelphia that collapsed in June, after a tanker truck caught fire. That structure, on Interstate 95, sustained significant damage but reopened in less than two weeks, after officials initially estimated that replacing the collapsed part would take months. The state is continuing repair work into next year.

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