10 Freeway Closure: Caltrans inspections uncovered lease violations before property caught fire

The fire-damaged part of the 10 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles is set to reopen next Tuesday. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and California Governor Gavin Newsom thanked the workers who have been working around the clock to get the freeway open before the Thanksgiving weekend.

So how did the fire start, and what can be done to prevent something this devastating from happening again in the future?

FOX 11's Cristy Fajardo has asked some of the most important questions behind the 10 Freeway fire all week long and learned this week that Caltrans actually did annual inspections of the property that caught fire. The last inspection was on October 5, just a month or so before the fire, according to Caltrans' own documents. 

An excerpt from a letter sent to the tenant in September of last year ordered remedies and outlined violations of the lease, including liquid propane gas stored next to combustibles and improperly stored, as well as drums of used oil in idle wood pallets under the freeway. 

Now, even businesses a mile away are dealing with the fallout, but are grateful the highway will likely reopen Tuesday instead of the 3 to 5 weeks as initially estimated.

"We've been losing business," Alejandro Garcia, WHY NUTS owner, told Bass. "About 40, 50%."

Bass toured WHY NUTS in downtown Los Angeles, whose business has struggled in the days after the 10 Freeway closure.

"We're really happy that they say they're going to open the freeway on Tuesday," Garcia said.

But Garcia tells Bass he has another concern – fires that break out all over the district.

"Because of the homeless," Garcia explained. "Because once you start getting cold, they start fires. Not so long ago – a couple of weeks ago – it was a fire right outside."

Bass told Garcia she believed the 10 Freeway fire was too big to be done by the homeless, but empathized with the business owner's concerns.

"We think there's something else going on. But I know what you're saying when you see homeless fires," she said.

It's a worry echoed throughout the warehouse district at Jireh Cash and Carry's Alma Rodriguez tells FOX 11 her insurance has doubled in the past year and other businesses can't get cover because of the encampments. Rodriguez said she feels forgotten.

"We're not used to making complaints because nobody cares," Rodriguez tells FOX 11.

Bass vowed to talk to the insurance commissioner about getting rates lowered. But in the meantime, Bass wants to assure commuters the expedited work on the freeway will be safe.

"What we can do is house the people in the encampments. And we have been working on that every single day. And you are correct. I mean, you can drive around the city and you can see charred sides of buildings where there have been fires," Bass said.

"The reason why the freeway is going to be open quickly is because the deep structural damage that we were worried about did not take place," she adds.

When asked if Bass was aware that Caltrans had inspected the business that caught fire a month ago, the LA Mayor appeared off-guard.

"Oh, I didn't know that," Bass told FOX 11's Cristy Fajardo. "If that was the case, I wonder what their inspection showed and what their remedy was."

While we don't know the details of the said inspection, a diary entry from the inspector dated October 5, 2023 reads, "Spot inspection, numerous lease violations."

It did not go into any further detail. However, FOX 11 did try to reach out to the tenant, Anthony Nowaid – who holds the lease for the Caltrans property – but was unable to be reached for comment at the time of publication Friday night.

Earlier this week, though, Nowaid issued a statement alleging that he is being scapegoated and said that he believed that the eviction proceedings against him were in retaliation for a lawsuit that he had filed against Caltrans.