Most Calif. DOT under-freeway spaces failed fire inspections

Inspectors found several eased space sites across the state failed inspections in the aftermath of the Nov. freeway fire


A storage site at Helen Street under the 580 freeway leased from Caltrans on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Oakland, Calif. The site was one of several leases that failed fire safety inspections and underwent a cleanup.

Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group

By John Woolfolk
Bay Area News Group

LOS ANGELES — An alarming number of storage sites under Bay Area freeway underpasses failed state fire marshal inspections spurred by last year’s devastating blaze that shut down Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, according to new Caltrans reports that raise questions about the risks of leasing space under California’s highways.

Inspectors found combustible trash, vegetation, tires and debris, stacks of wooden pallets and lumber, unsecured compressed gas cylinders, unsafe wiring, motor oil and obstructed fire safety access.

[PREVIOUSLY: Los Angeles land lease program under scrutiny after freeway fire]

“Inspections of these sites revealed several issues presenting fire or safety risks, as well as other issues and lease violations,” Caltrans Director Tony Tavares wrote in a Feb. 6 report to Gov. Gavin Newsom on the safety of Caltrans’ program to lease out space under freeways.

State fire inspectors fanned out around the state after a fiery blaze fed by combustibles stored under the interstate near downtown Los Angeles shut down the vital link for more than a week last fall. Arson is suspected in that Nov. 11 . fire.

In the Bay Area, state fire marshals conducted nine inspections under interstates 880 and 580 overpasses in Alameda County, two under 580 in Richmond and five under Interstate 280 and Highway 101 in San Francisco. Only two passed, according to new reports last week. Of the 60 site inspections statewide, just 12 passed.

Caltrans said tenants were given 30 days to correct problems noted by the fire marshal. Though Caltrans was unclear whether all the problems have since been corrected, leaseholders at several of the Bay Area sites said they have done so. Others declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries from the Bay Area News Group.

Of 16 Bay Area site inspections conducted last fall, only two passed, while fire marshals failed 75% of the 60 underpass inspections across the state. The report included a host of proposed changes to the lease program to prevent another catastrophe like the I-10 freeway fire. Those include checking lease applicants for past bankruptcies and legal actions, and updating and clarifying lease terms to specify what materials are deemed “hazardous” and specifically to prohibit items like wood, paper, trash, oil, gas, tires and industrial chemicals.

Other proposed changes include clamping down on subleases of the space, maintaining a central inventory of leases, ensuring more frequent inspections where warranted and enforcing a shorter timeline for fixing violations. Caltrans spokesman Edward Barrera said the agency plans to implement its initial recommendations for the lease program by March 30.

The proposed changes could make the program impractical for some tenants. One of the lease-holders in Oakland, Van Matre Lumber uses the rented space under I-880 to store stacked wood near its 5th Avenue lumber yard. Though the space is neatly kept, the fire marshal said it failed its Nov. 21 inspection because the stacked wood was higher than 12 feet and within 90 feet of a warehouse.

But the new revisions to Caltrans’ lease terms suggest wood will not be allowed at all. Van Matre Lumber declined to comment.

Velma Curtis, manager at Natural Logistics, said the trucking business has left the space it rented in Oakland under I-880 at Castro Street after inspectors found problems with electrical wiring, improperly grounded generators and a fire extinguisher that needed an inspection.

“We fixed the things that they told us to fix, and at the end of January we decided to give away the lot to Caltrans,” said Curtis, whose company used the space to park trucks and shipping containers in a neighborhood surrounded by vacant, trash-filled lots and homeless encampments. “The situation in that area is not so well for many companies. We have another place that we’re renting just for trucks and so far it’s going good.”

The inspected sites represent a fraction of Caltrans’ 600 active freeway right-of-way leases in the program. The transportation agency has been leasing space since the 1970s and raised $34.6 million for transportation programs in its most recent year. Other states have similar programs.

Most of California’s leases are with telecommunications companies for cell phone towers or for parking lots, which the agency said do not present the same risks as materials storage. Caltrans last fall singled out 38 leases statewide used for materials storage that the agency felt warranted further inspection last fall. The latest report included the results of those inspections, plus 10 other similar leases that were due for reinspection.

A Contra Costa County site leased to SOS Richmond failed inspection on Nov. 21 for accumulation of combustible materials. The nonprofit provides jobs and basic services to homeless people, including showers and laundry, and uses leased space under I-580 at S. Second Street for its headquarters and equipment storage.

“The fix wasn’t going to be a 10-minute fix,” said SOS Richmond Executive Director Daniel Barth. “When we got the 30-day notice, I immediately looked for another site. But our staff said ‘No, this is our home, we’re going to save it.’ They got to work cleaning the thing.”

Barth said Caltrans revisited, they passed inspection, and Caltrans worked with them to resolve issues so they could stay.

While most of the leased sites are in industrial areas, at least one under I-580 in West Oakland is adjacent to homes. Easter Osi, 51, who lives with his children in a home adjacent to the freeway and the stored material underneath, said some of it caught fire late last year. He and his family, who have lived there for two years, had to clear out of their home in the middle of the night.

“There had to be something flammable to cause that big of a fire,” Osi said. “We had to shut all our windows, that’s how strong the smoke was.”

In November, the site, which Caltrans said is leased to J.D. Hauling, was packed with metal storage bins brim full with materials, as well as wooden pallets, appliances, vehicles and other materials. A sign advertised “Yard space for rent! Trucks, RVs, Buses, Large Equipment and more.”

Caltrans said it failed fire inspection due to combustible material located too close to the lot line and freeway structural columns, improper extension cord use and inaccessibility to firefighting equipment — though another adjacent stretch under the freeway also leased to J.D. Hauling passed inspection.

J.D. Hauling didn’t respond to requests for comment. But last week, the sign advertising yard space to rent was gone, and the metal storage bins were empty in the area that had failed inspection last fall.

Osi said that did little to comfort him.

“It’s not safe,” Osi said. “They don’t need to be storing anything that can catch fire.”

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