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KCAL News Investigates: Did a 2018 memo outlining potential freeway fire hazards get ignored?

KCAL Investigation: Did a 2018 memo outlining potential freeway fire hazards get ignored?
KCAL Investigation: Did a 2018 memo outlining potential freeway fire hazards get ignored? 03:16

In the wake of the 10 Freeway fire, KCAL News obtained a 2018 memo outlining potential hazards from flammable materials stored underneath highways.

The memo stems from a destructive blaze triggered by PVC pipes stored underneath the I-85 Freeway in Atlanta caused it to collapse in March 2017. For two months, authorities shut down a portion of the freeway as the National Transportation Safety Bureau investigated the fire. 

The NTSB compiled its findings into a safety alert in 2018, advising states to evaluate materials under bridges that could pose a  fire risk.

A week after the bulletin, Caltrans engineers warned the department about the possibility of fires raging under freeways, like the I-10, if flammable materials were allowed to be stored there. It also established new guidelines for these materials and facilities. 

"Caltrans recognized that although a low probability, an event similar to the Georgia I-85 failure, could occur here," engineers wrote in the memo. 

Large Fire Along L.A.'s I-10 Brings Transportation Crisis To Already Traffic Laden L.A.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 13: Fire damage is viewed beneath the closed I-10 elevated freeway following a large pallet fire, which occurred Saturday at a storage yard, on November 13, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Engineers have been assessing the extent of the damage and it remains unknown how long the freeway, which is a major commuter artery through the downtown area, will remain closed and complicate traffic for the city. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the fire was caused by arson and that over 300,000 vehicles drive through the freeway corridor each day with drivers being urged to use public transit. / Getty Images

The engineers advised officials that "facilities and stored materials must maintain a minimum setback of 20 feet from columns" supporting the freeway. Additionally, the items should "maintain vertical clearance of at least 6 feet" below the bridge."

However, it appears these guidelines may not have been followed in the area where this weekend's freeway fire happened. 

Pictures from Google Earth — taken before the fire — show stacks of wooden pallets stored under the 10 Freeway. Some of these piles seem to be closer than what the memo suggested.

"I think common sense approach or answer to that is it didn't look like a very safe storage condition because all those pallets are stored right up to the underside of the overpass," said fire safety expert Robert Rowe. 

Before the fire, Caltrans filed a lawsuit against the company leasing the land saying it improperly subleased it to others.

KCAL News discovered other areas under the 10 Freeway seemingly violating the Caltrans memo. Some of the situations are eerily similar to the recent fire, with wooden pallets stacked next to columns. In other places, there were other seemingly combustible materials stored under the freeway. 

"The common sense approach is that it's a perfect place to store stuff but we're finding out quickly that maybe policies need to change," said Rowe. "Needs to be more enforcement in making sure these areas utilized by the public are protected."

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