Hidden under one of Los Angeles’ busiest highways, the I-10 overpass conceals more than just overgrown land. A recent fire exposed evidence that mishandling of items and possible risks due to stored flammable materials kept under the overpass was a known factor previous to the fire.

For a long time, many wooden pallets and flammable liquids were stored there, and the California Department of Transportation, the organization responsible for California’s roads, as well as fire safety officials, knew it was risky to allow this. Measures and precautions were taken to ensure safe handling of these items, precautions such as a system of inspections, action items and and work orders.
Then, a big fire happened this month, forcing the major freeway in Los Angeles to close for a week.

This fire is now being investigated as a possible arson case, bringing attention to a specific program run by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans.) Caltrans allows private businesses use land under and near freeways. With a $34.6 million lease program for over 600 rental spaces, the program aims to make use of the land beneath and around the freeways. However, standing on the Santa Monica Freeway, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom said they are now checking into this whole program more closely.

After the fire, federal authorities quickly reminded state transportation departments of federal regulations that limit the storage of flammable materials under highway bridges. A memo from the Federal Highway Administration highlighted the risks, referencing a similar 2017 incident in Atlanta, where a fire shut down a stretch of I-85.

spencer gu gPSDBFd2 IA unsplash

Caltrans had leased the underpass site, where the fire broke out, to Apex Development and its owner, Ahmad Anthony Nowaid, since 2008. However, recent efforts to evict Nowaid for non-payment of rent highlight the site’s troubled history.

Nowaid’s subleasing of the 48,000-square-foot area to nearly a dozen businesses, including a pallet distributor, a mechanic shop, and a recycler, made the situation complex. Most of these renters were immigrants running blue-collar shops, paying triple the rent Nowaid owed to Caltrans. Despite efforts to comply with safety standards, the inherent risks remained unchecked.

Raul Castro, a scrap metal business owner, expressed his commitment to safety: “What we do is try to have our workplace as safe as we can. We try to have it clean with no flammable stuff, nothing at all.” But despite his efforts, the area was still risky.

Caltrans found problems when they inspected the space under the freeway. They have conducted six checks since the beginning of 2020 and have noticed things that could catch fires, like the wooden pallets and homeless camps nearby. An inspection on October 5 pointed out these dangers. A prior notice to Nowaid in September 2021 about hazardous material storage went unheeded.

The situation reached a critical point with a surprise inspection by Caltrans and the Office of the State Fire Marshal on August 16, 2022. The inspection report was damning, listing numerous lease violations, including high piles of materials and the presence of prohibited substances like solvents and fuels. The verdict was clear: “This is a filthy unmaintained lease,” and “Evict tenant and start over.”

However, the situation remained unresolved despite issuing a three-day eviction notice in August 2023 and filing a lawsuit against Nowaid and his subtenants for unpaid rent – totaling $78,000. This was just one of several properties where Caltrans sought to evict Apex and other Nowaid companies, with total unpaid rent nearing $620,000.

Meanwhile, tenants like Israel Quintero, who runs a body shop under the freeway, are worried about what will happen next. Even though the freeway opened again, Caltrans has warned them they might have to leave. Quintero said, “It’s been a terrible experience, full of stress. My family, my children depend on this job.”

The fire’s aftermath revealed a bigger problem: There is a need for stricter enforcement and oversight of such leases. As the court case against Nowaid and the others renting from him continues, and as Caltrans looks again at how they let people rent space, the hope is that this event will lead to changes, ensuring such a disaster never happens again.