LOS ANGELES (AP) — The fire erupted after midnight under a Los Angeles freeway where 16 people were living, including a pregnant woman who was only weeks from giving birth.
As the flames engulfed the storage yard and the inferno's heat melted some of the thoroughfare's steel guardrails and concrete pillars, rescue crews were able to get everyone out safely. But the disaster has brought renewed criticism of officials' inability to get homeless residents off the street, leaving tens of thousands living in perilous locations across the nation's second-largest city.
Three years ago, as part of a court order related to a yearslong lawsuit accusing the city and county of Los Angeles of not doing enough to address homelessness, a judge wrote that he was concerned about 7,000 people living under freeways, calling it “unreasonably dangerous.” County supervisor Hilda Solis said officials have since set aside nearly $300 million to create 6,700 shelter beds, but rows of tents and makeshift shelters are still a common sight under overpasses and along highway ramps.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and California Gov. Gavin Newsom are now under pressure to not only reopen the section of Interstate 10 as fast as possible, but to find out who started the fire and what oversight the state had on the property. Bass has warned repeatedly against assumptions that homeless residents started the blaze, but that hasn't stopped speculation and blame.
Late Wednesday, an attorney for Apex Development Inc., which leased the property, said the company had complained to city officials numerous times about fires started by homeless people on or near the property. In addition, Apex had been denied access to the site since October, attorney Mainak D’Attaray said.
Newsom has called the company “bad actors," and the state is in litigation with Apex seeking $78,000 in back rent for the property and claiming the company sublet to unauthorized tenants.
“It is unfortunate that Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Karen Bass have used this incident to speculate and mischaracterize Apex and its principals as ‘bad actors’ to excuse their own failures to adequately address the public safety issues caused by the unhoused,” D'Attaray said in an emailed statement.
A spokesperson for the governor disputed D'Attaray's claims. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection “currently believes the fire was caused by arson — the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property — in a fenced-off area that Apex was responsible for maintaining while they continued to assert rights under the lease,” said Izzy Gardon with Newsom's office.
A federally required January count estimated that on any given night there were more than 75,500 homeless people in the county, with well over 46,000 of them in the Los Angeles city limits. Since 2015, homelessness has increased by 70% in the county and 80% in the city. Advocates over the years have sued the city and county to demand more action.
Investigators have made a preliminary determination that the blaze was intentionally set behind a fence where businesses were storing materials under I-10, but they said they do not know yet who started it.
Mel Tillekeratne, an advocate for homeless people and founder of nonprofit The Shower Of Hope, said Saturday's blaze could have been a horrible human catastrophe.
“We were lucky there that nobody got hurt," he said. “But something like this could happen at any other encampment at any other time. It’s just a tragedy waiting to happen.”
Tillekeratne said he hopes disasters like this shine a light on how homeless resources and facilities need to be staged in more neighborhoods to keep people away from highways, where pollution from exhaust and traffic accidents are major hazards.
“We’re talking about one of the busiest freeways in the U.S.,” he said, speaking of I-10.
Solis, who represents the area where the fire began, said, “We know that more resources are needed in this area to help overcome the consequences of structural and systemic inequalities.”
Of those evacuated during Saturday’s fire, eight moved into interim housing, three went to stay with friends and one was reconnected with a homeless services program, Solis said Wednesday.
Business owners who subleased the storage properties said they voiced concerns for years about fire danger and other hazards related to camps in an industrial zone under I-10.
Rudy Serafin said the number of homeless encampments in the neighborhood has grown steadily since he began storing supplies for his business under the freeway in 2009. He said Serafin Distribution, which provides office supplies and other items, couldn't get insurance due to concerns about homeless people starting cooking fires. He said he and other business owners made multiple reports asking city officials to act.
“We called every single week," he said, adding that eventually encampments were cleared, only to reappear again within days.
The city didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether they had received complaints or removed people from the site. Some business owners said there had been other fires in the area, but the Los Angeles Fire Department couldn't immediately confirm that.
Storage yards under highways are common statewide, with the money from the leases going to public transit. Newsom said the practice would be reevaluated following the fire.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.