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Los Angeles commuters bracing for traffic nightmare as fire closes major freeway

David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

(LOS ANGELES) — Commuters in Los Angeles are bracing for an all-day traffic nightmare after one of the nation’s busiest freeways was shut down indefinitely by a massive fire that erupted over the weekend in a storage yard underneath the normally congested artery.

The 10 Freeway, traversed by more than 300,000 drivers daily, remained closed in both directions as authorities suggested a series of detours and announced there is no timeline on when the thoroughfare through downtown Los Angeles will reopen.

“As we made clear yesterday, this was a huge fire and the damage will not be fixed in an instant,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said during a news conference Monday morning. “Engineers have worked all night and are working right now to determine our path forward.”

On Sunday, Bass said, “There’s no reason to think this is going to be over in a couple of days.”

“We cannot give you an estimate of time right now,” Bass said of when the freeway might reopen.

Bass told commuters to expect epic traffic jams akin to what was seen after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a 6.7 magnitude shaker that collapsed several freeways in the Los Angeles area.

“For those of you who remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Caltrans [the California Department of Transportation] worked around the clock to complete emergency repairs to the freeways — and this structural damage calls for the same level of urgency and effort,” Bass said.

The fire broke out underneath the 10 Freeway just after midnight Saturday, ripping through numerous wooden pallets, trailers and vehicles stored below the raised interstate, officials said. The fire sent thick smoke and towering flames into the sky and dealt a challenge to more than 160 firefighters who responded to put out the blaze.

The out-of-control fire burned for three hours and spread over what authorities described as the equivalent of six football fields before it was extinguished. About 16 homeless people living underneath the highway were evacuated to shelters, officials said.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

Caltrans officials said crews are still assessing the damage caused to columns and support beams under the freeway, but could not say when it would be cleared to reopen. Hazardous materials teams are also clearing burned material from the site.

“We’re seeing a lot of … concrete that’s flaked off the columns. The underside of the bridge deck may be compromised,” said Lauren Wonder, a Caltrans spokesperson. “It’s sort of a waiting situation right now. We don’t have an estimated time of opening, but Caltrans wants to ensure that this bridge is safe to put traffic back on it.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to help facilitate cleanup and repairs to the freeway.

“Remember, this is an investigation as to the cause of how this occurred, as well as a hazmat and structural engineering question,” Newsom said. “Can you open a few lanes? Can you retrofit the columns? Is the bridge deck intact to allow for a few lanes to remain open again?”

Los Angeles transportation officials are warning drivers to expect gridlock and suggested they work from home, take public transportation or adhere to suggested alternate routes to other major freeways, including Interstate 5 and Highway 101, to maneuver around the closed section of the 10 Freeway. Transportation officials are requesting drivers to not detour to surface streets and clog neighborhoods along the closed freeway.

Rafael Molina, deputy district director for the division of traffic at the California Department of Transporation, said Monday morning that there are early indications that commuters are heeding the warnings.

“In looking at the traffic data earlier this morning, I am somewhat pleased to say that the congestion was a little bit lighter than normal,” Molina said. “However, please, if you don’t need to be in downtown Los Angeles, please avoid those trips.”

Transportation officials said the storage area that caught fire is leased by a private company.

California Secretary of Transportation Toks Omishakin said officials are reevaluating whether to continue allowing storage yards under highways, but noted that such places are common across the state and nation.

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