The area was dotted with wells until the 1920s, when the value of the real estate exceeded that of the crude produced on the acreage. The wells were capped and the land was developed. But a lot of the plugged wells are leaking methane. Also, there's a rich source of the gas in the nearby La Brea Tar Pits.
Thirty years ago this week, methane gas from some of those old wells rose to the surface and ignited. Flames sprouted from cracks in the sidewalks and along building foundations up and down 3rd Street, just across the way from L.A.'s landmark Farmers Market. Then, without warning, pressurized gas exploded inside a nearby clothing store, blowing out the windows and injuring more than 20 people. Suddenly the neighborhood looked like it had been firebombed. Firefighters and paramedics rushed in. Streets were blocked off. Homes and businesses were evacuated until fire officials were certain that the threat of further explosions had passed. Parts of the normally busy commercial area were sealed off for weeks.
Eventually methane monitors were installed, and now when high levels of gas are detected alarms go off. These monitors can be found in businesses, apartment buildings and parking lots. But monitors alone don't eliminate the risks. Just last month, Koretz said there was a small methane gas explosion on Wilshire Boulevard near Hauser Boulevard on the Miracle Mile. This occurred despite the monitors and vent pipes that can be found along Wilshire and in other parts of the neighborhood.
The 1985 Fairfax incident came at a bad time for county transportation officials. Plans had been underway to build out the subway system – part of which would run under the Miracle Mile. Following the blast, local politicians, citing the danger of a methane gas explosion, successfully lobbied for and got a federal ban on subway construction through the area. However twenty years later, new studies were conducted that suggested there were ways to safely vent the area's methane gas. Politicians got on board and the subway ban was lifted. Metro's Purple Line now is in the early stages of construction.
Despite the injuries that occurred in the Fairfax explosion, miraculously no one was killed. Today there are monitors and vents throughout the area, but there's still a lot of methane, as last month's Wilshire explosion proves. Although greenhouse gases might be considered a serious pollution problem, clearly the area's methane gas poses an immediate threat to life and property. Take a look at our archival video of the 1985 blast to see what can happen when that gas builds up and ignites.