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Massive fire that closed Interstate 10 in Los Angeles was set intentionally, governor says

Caltrans District 7/AP

(CNN) By Melissa Alonso, Matt Phillips, Elizabeth Wolfe and Taylor Romine — The massive fire that forced the indefinite closure of Interstate 10, a major traffic artery in Los Angeles, was set intentionally, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

A preliminary investigation found there was “malice intent,” Newsom said at a news conference, adding it was “done and set intentionally.”

An investigation is still ongoing and the governor did not say whether there were any suspects or leads on who may have set the blaze.

Mayor Karen Bass described the closure of the interstate as a “crisis” for a city already notorious for its traffic woes. She urged travelers to prepare for delays and plan alternative routes while the interstate remains shut down in both directions near Alameda Street in the city’s downtown area.

Ahead of the Monday morning commute, a citywide alert was sent to residents’ cell phones warning the freeway “will be closed indefinitely” and to “expect significant traffic.”

The closure has “been adding about 10 minutes from my day and then it’s just more anxiety and stress than the normal morning,” commuter Diana Enriquez told CNN affiliate KABC.

Another commuter, Tony Behrstock, described the effect of the closure as “horrible.”

“I’m miserable,” he told KABC.

More than 300,000 people travel through the freeway corridor every day, state Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin said, nearly as many as the population of Pittsburgh.

“It’s of significant consequence to the economy, to the health and safety of Angelenos,” Newsom said. “The impact to our schools, to vulnerable communities – all of that we take very seriously, and we’re sober and mindful of the urgency to get this open.”

The city is scrambling to assess the safety of the roadway and repair the damage caused by a raging fire at a storage yard early Saturday that spread under the freeway to ignite a second storage facility, ultimately engulfing about 80,000 square feet and destroying several vehicles, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

There is no estimated timeline for reopening the stretch of the interstate, but Bass warned Sunday the issue “is not going to be resolved in one or two days.”

The state’s transportation department urged commuters to work from home or take public transportation, if possible.

Nearby school bus routes are also likely to change, though public schools will remain open, the LA Unified School District announced.

The Port of Los Angeles warned travelers to prepare for heavy traffic Monday morning, flagging updates and alternate routes.

Newsom has declared a state of emergency for Los Angeles County due to the closure and said the state would assess the damage and begin making repairs as soon as the site could be accessed.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement he was in touch with California officials, adding the federal highway administrator is expected in Los Angeles on Monday.

The cause of the massive fire remains unclear despite the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection completing its portion of the investigation, and now work begins on determining the safety of a bridge burned in the blaze, officials said during a news conference Monday.

“Right now, we do not believe it will collapse,” John Yang, deputy district director for construction for the California Department of Transportation, said of the damaged section of the freeway Monday.

A line of about 100 columns on the bridge damaged during the fire are being inspected as part of the process, Tony Tavares, director of the transportation department, said during the news conference.

The bridge is five lanes in each direction and the affected area is around 450 feet long, Yang explained.

“This is a wide bridge, very wide bridge,” said Yang.

Photos of the aftermath provided by the state show black stains left behind after the blaze and concrete patches missing from columns, exposing metal pieces and the inner portions of the support columns.

Hazmat teams will work around the clock to clean up the damage on Interstate 10, according to Newsom, who said the scale of the fire’s damage is “substantially greater” than the collapse of a portion of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia in June.

“You name it, we saw it stored at this site,” said Newsom, who toured the location on Sunday. Wooden pallets, cars filled with gas and boxes of oranges have all been found under the Los Angeles bridge, officials said.

Crews are working to take core samples from the foundation of the freeway all the way up to the bridge deck.

“We have no concern for worker safety working underneath,” Yang added.

Concrete and rebar samples have been taken from the underside of the freeway and are being analyzed to determine repair strategy, California Secretary of Transportation Toks Omishakin said.

Firefighters responded to reports of a fire around 12:30 a.m. Saturday at a 200-by-200-foot storage yard “with pallets, trailers and vehicles well involved in fire” and buildings that were exposed, according to the fire department.

“Wind pushed the heat and the flames under the freeway, and across the street ignited a secondary storage yard,” Fire Chief Kristin Crowley said Sunday.

The bulk of the fire had been extinguished within three hours and firefighters were able to save three nearby commercial buildings, Crowley said. More than 160 firefighters responded to the incident, she added.

No injuries have been reported due to the blaze, the fire chief said.

When asked by reporters why the flammable material was allowed to be stored under the bridge, the governor said, “That’s all being assessed.”

Newsom said the tenant of the site is in violation of their lease. “We’re in litigation, their lease has expired and we have been aggressive in addressing concerns as it relates to the lease itself,” he said.

Officials believe the tenant “subleased the space … with multiple subleases, that’s part of the litigation posture,” Newsom said.

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