Blaze Erupts at Produce Market

Times Staff Writer

Dozens of fruit and vegetable vendors were sent running from a major downtown Los Angeles wholesale produce market Monday when flames erupted in its nearly 90-year-old warehouse.

The fire quickly sparked concern over possible damage to the salad ingredients that pour by the truckload out of one of Southern California's key distribution points for fresh vegetables and fruit.

Boxes stacked on pallets and filled with freshly picked onions, squash, lettuce and citrus were caught in a cascade of burning debris and water as 150 firefighters attacked the blaze. Burning boxes toppled over, sending fruit and vegetables tumbling from loading platforms into the center courtyard.

As firefighters rolled up their hoses to leave, inspectors from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services arrived to look for water or smoke contamination in crates stacked on loading platforms.

Officials determined that the inventory in Strawberry Kids Produce and Panda Produce were destroyed. Inspectors expected to continue their work today, said Alfonso Medina, director of the county health department's Consumer Protection Bureau.

Produce that appears to be damaged will be turned over to licensed food salvagers if vendors still seek to sell it, he said.

Hard-skinned items such as apples might have survived, Medina said. But with things such as lettuce, "it might be difficult to get the soot out," he said.

The two-hour blaze brought much of downtown's produce district to a halt. Fire hoses and police tape prevented produce trucks and forklifts loaded with fruit from entering or leaving the sprawling 7th Street yard, which is operated by the Alameda Produce Market.

Built in 1917, it covers a block along Central Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets south of the downtown high-rise district. The property is owned by developer Richard Meruelo and his family. His office declined to comment.

Authorities said the fire was reported at 9:58 a.m. in a second-floor office and storage area and was under control about noon. No injuries were reported and arson investigators have been called in. A damage estimate was not immediately available.

Firefighters said four produce outlets that are tenants at the market were burned out and at least four others were damaged.

Workers at the market -- which is home to 71 wholesale vendors -- said there was no panic when the fire broke out near the U-shaped structure's northwest corner at South Central Avenue and 8th Street. Other buildings on the east side of the market create the partially covered courtyard area where trucks are loaded and pallets of vegetables are sorted.

"The fire was very little at first. Nobody was scared. But after about 10 minutes it got bigger," said Benny Ayala, 43, of Cudahy, a vegetable wholesaler who has worked 10 years at the market. "Three businesses, maybe four, are totally gone," said Ayala, whose own business is across the courtyard.

Firefighters streamed tons of water into the burning section of the building, sending old tin overhangs flying.

Los Angeles firefighters Richard Hernandez and Daniel Gonzalez crouched in ankle-deep water as they trained their hose on flames at Panda Produce. Water poured from the doorways of the loading docks, carrying a colorful tide of cabbage, pineapples, oranges and avocados.

Fire Capt. Carlos Calvillo said concrete floors and fireproof division walls helped prevent flames from spreading throughout the market.

Despite the old warehouse's sturdy construction, the blaze spread to several businesses because of the structure's common attic and wood roof, said Battalion Chief Lou Roupoli, a department spokesman.

The fire struck at one of the market's busiest times, Roupoli said. Trucks deliver fresh produce before dawn and workers sort it for reshipment during the morning, he said.

Although red flag windy weather fire warnings were posted elsewhere in Los Angeles County, winds were not a factor in the blaze, Roupoli said. Breezes were light Monday in downtown Los Angeles.

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