A large section of the I-10 freeway near downtown Los Angeles will remain closed to traffic for three to five weeks to repair damage caused by a massive fire that investigators allege was started by an arsonist, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference Tuesday.
Newsom said an analysis of samples taken from the deck of the freeway showed the damaged roadway will not have to be torn down and replaced and that crews will work to complete the work of shoring up one of the nation's most congested traffic arteries as fast as they possibly can.
"That suring work will continue 24/7 and will allow us to reopen, for traffic, the I-10 in a matter of weeks. The estimate currently is three to five weeks," Newsom said.
In the interim, Mayor Karen Bass suggested commuters take the Metro or the bus. She said at a Tuesday evening press conference that buses would be free and she has asked for the Metro trains along the routes of the freeway closures to "go faster."
Bass said she had heard about "a couple of instances of road rage," something she strongly discouraged at the press event, saying, "We cannot have that."
Earlier Tuesday, the governor said 100 columns that hold up the freeway were damaged by the fire, nine to 10 of them severely damaged.
He said transportation crews would work around the clock, seven days a week, to speed up the repairs.
"We're going to do everything in our power to move that into a more immediate future and not extend it to that five-week period," Newsom said.
Had it been determined that the freeway needed to be demolished and replaced, it would have taken five to six months before the I-10 could be reopened.
"This is good news under the circumstance," Newsom said, standing near the crippled freeway. "And I've got to say on the basis of the preliminary assessment, news that, frankly, a lot of the folks, particularly the experts you see behind me, didn't expect to share."
Newsom also updated the public on the investigation of the fire. He said investigators are still working to identify the "individual or individuals responsible for this act, this intentional act of arson."
Due to the I-10 -- a major east-to-west artery in Los Angeles -- being shut down in both directions, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass suggested locals take other routes, work from home or take the Metro.
"We're getting the 10 freeway up and running as fast as possible," she said during the news conference Monday.
Over the weekend, commuters in Los Angeles began bracing for a traffic nightmare for the highway that has more than 300,000 drivers daily.
Bass told commuters earlier on Monday 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 I-10 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.
Bass said Monday afternoon that no information is known beyond arson being the suspected origin of the fire. She also urged people not to jump to conclusions.
"There is no reason to assume that the origin of this fire or the reason this fire happened was because there were unhoused individuals nearby," she said, adding, "I want you to know we are working urgently to address this crisis."
California Department of Transportation officials said crews are still assessing the damage caused to columns and support beams under the freeway. Hazardous materials teams are also clearing burned material from the site.
Newsom said Tuesday that 250 truckloads of debris had been removed from the site. He said preliminary tests showed that none of the material stored under the freeway was toxic.
"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 California Department of Transportation spokesperson.
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 earlier. "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?"
Rafael Molina, deputy district director for the division of traffic at the California Department of Transportation, said Monday that there were early indications that commuters were 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 a private company leases the storage area that caught fire.
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.