Fire under 10 Freeway in downtown L.A. upends traffic with no reopening in sight

VIDEO | 02:15
Fire under 10 Freeway in downtown L.A. upends traffic with no reopening in sight

Investigators are looking into the cause of a major fire that has shut down the 10 Freeway in downtown L.A. Officials said to expect ‘significant’ traffic issues.

Share via

The 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles will remain closed indefinitely as the California Department of Transportation moves to repair an overpass badly damaged by an intense fire early Saturday at two storage yards in an area with multiple homeless encampments.

The incident, which closed westbound and eastbound lanes of the busy freeway between Alameda Street and Santa Fe Avenue, will significantly affect traffic in the area, officials said at a news conference Sunday, without offering a timetable for reopening.

“Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that this is going to be over in a couple of days,” L.A. Mayor Karen Bass said. “We will need to come together and all cooperate until the freeway is rebuilt.”


Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Saturday to help expedite the work. Acknowledging “the anxiety of millions and millions that live in this region,” Newsom noted that 300,000 vehicles travel through the freeway corridor daily. And he said he knew the question many are asking: “When the hell is this going to get reopened?”

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass
Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass attend a news conference Sunday at Caltrans headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Several things must occur before construction can begin — starting with an investigation into the cause of the fire. It is expected to be finished by 6 a.m. Monday. Mitigation of hazardous materials also needs to be completed before a detailed structural analysis of the damaged portions of the freeway can commence. Engineers will be inspecting the freeway’s columns and bridge deck.

“I am not going to understate the challenge here — it is significant,” California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin said. “This is not going to be an easy task for our structural engineers at Caltrans.”

Commuters were encouraged to take alternate routes, avoid the area altogether or use public transit to help ease traffic flow through the downtown area as work on the freeway continues.

This could be the most notable freeway closure in the Southland since the 1994 Northridge earthquake buckled portions of the 10 and other routes. The shutdown is expected to increase congestion on adjacent freeways where traffic is being diverted, among them the 5, 110 and 710.

Los Angeles firefighters assess the fire damage to the 10 Freeway
Los Angeles firefighters continue to assess the damage from a fire under the 10 Freeway near downtown Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The faint scent of smoke hung in the air Sunday morning as Caltrans workers examined a stretch of the freeway near 14th Street. Black marks were visible on the overpass where the Los Angeles City Fire Department responded to a reported rubbish fire at 12:22 a.m. a day earlier. The department said its first responders arrived to find a storage yard with pallets, trailers and vehicles “well involved in fire.”

Ultimately, firefighters from 26 companies and one helicopter responded to the scene; they were able to keep the blaze from spreading into nearby structures, though a firetruck was badly damage.

Newsom said officials are investigating whether anyone was living under the overpass at the time of the fire, but at the moment there are no known deaths from the incident. Bass said some homeless people living nearby evacuated because of the fire and that at least 16 have since been housed.

On X, the service formerly known as Twitter, users posted images that purportedly showed homeless encampments beneath the freeway at 14th Street. Newsom said that he and other officials cleaned up an encampment there in August 2022.

“I am intimately familiar with this site,” he said.

The incident could lead officials to study the safety of homeless encampments near freeways across the city. Pete Brown, a spokesman for L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León, whose district includes the site of the fire, said he believed the incident would “trigger a review” of such properties.


“We just want to make sure folks are as safe as possible,” Brown said. “Nine freeways crisscross through [de León’s] district.”

Since January, Brown said, the councilman’s office had conducted six “cleanup operations” of sites under the 10 Freeway that had moved 36 people into housing in the downtown area. Two of the visits were at the property where the fire occurred, he said.

The area around the burn site is home to many homeless encampments. A man named Enrique who has been living in his car near the now-damaged overpass for most of the last year said that he woke up early Saturday to police shouting for people to clear the area.

“They were big flames, higher than that building,” the 58-year-old said, pointing to a two-story structure on 14th Street.

Behind Enrique, who declined to give his last name, there was a series of makeshift dwellings. A woman walked out of one and wandered the streets with no pants or underwear.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Kristin M. Crowley said that “as for any of the encampments in that area, we do not have any direct correlation at this point as to if that’s where it did start or didn’t.”


“We are going to have to standby and wait for the active investigation to be completed,” she said.

Homeless encampments have been the source of fires under and around freeways up and down the West Coast in recent years. In July 2022, a major blaze struck an encampment underneath the 880 Freeway in Oakland, destroying vehicles, snarling traffic and requiring the work of 60 firefighters to extinguish it. And in March, a fire in Tacoma, Wash., broke out in a tent beneath the 5 Freeway, leaving one person dead.

The 14th Street property where the fire occurred Saturday is owned by Caltrans, a spokesman for the agency said. Newsom said that site had been leased to an entity he declined to name. But the lease is expired, the entity is in arrears and it has been cited by state investigators, Newsom said.

He added that the state is in litigation with the lessee and believes it has been subleasing the space.

Omishakin said it’s common practice across the country to lease space under freeways. “This is something that is going to be reevaluated from a safety standpoint,” he said, including what is allowed to be stored underneath overpasses.

Southern California is no stranger to freeway closures. Far from it.

Mudslides, wildfires and snow storms have routinely shut down portions of freeways, highways and state routes — but those closures often are quickly resolved. The 5 Freeway, for example, was briefly shut down along the Grapevine a dozen times from 2018 to 2022 due to snow, Caltrans said. Some natural disasters have caused notable problems: In 2018, Highway 23, which connects Pacific Coast Highway and the 101 Freeway, was closed for about six weeks starting in November after the Woolsey fire ripped through nearly 100,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains.


Man-made fires have also taken their toll on Southern California’s freeways. In 2013, a tanker truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline crashed and caught fire, severely damaging a tunnel connecting the 5 and 2 freeways in Elysian Valley north of downtown. The conflagration burned through almost three inches of concrete and caused chunks of it to fall from the tunnel walls, necessitating a $16.5-million repair. The work wasn’t completed until January 2014.

But the biggest disruption to the freeway system occurred after the magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck L.A. on Jan. 17, 1994, killing dozens and causing tens of billions of dollars of property damage. Parts of one highway and six freeways, among them the 5 and the 10, were closed after the temblor collapsed overpasses and buckled roadways, The Times reported.

An accelerated construction effort — one spurred by round-the-clock work — led to reopenings ahead of schedule. In the case of the 10 Freeway, which saw two sections flattened by the quake, contractor C.C. Myers Inc. finished the project 74 days ahead of schedule, allowing it to reopen in April. The company had been offered a $200,000 bonus for every day the work was finished ahead of schedule, The Times reported.

Bass invoked that push on Sunday.

“For those of you that remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans worked around the clock to complete the emergency repairs to the freeways, and this structural damage calls for the same level of urgency and effort,” she said.

Newsom said the state is now determining whether to offer contractors incentives to finish repair work quickly.

“We are sober and mindful of the urgency to get this open,” Newsom said. “It is safety first, it’s speed second.”