Welding Torch Sparked Massive Los Angeles Port Fire

September 24, 2014

A spark from a welder’s torch caused a fire at a Port of Los Angeles wharf that was smoldering and sending up a huge plume of smoke Tuesday after forcing about 850 people to evacuate the night before, the city’s fire chief said.

While the bulk of the fire was under control, it could take until Tuesday afternoon or evening for crews to fully extinguish the blaze, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said at a morning briefing.

“This is a very, very difficult fire to fight,” he said.

It continued to smolder among the wooden pier timbers, which were coated with water-resistant, highly flammable creosote, a byproduct of the coal industry that is used to prevent erosion.

Thick smoke from the fire prompted the Los Angeles fire and police officials to issue advisories to residents in Wilmington, San Pedro and Long Beach to remain indoors and keep windows closed. Nearby schools remained open with all outdoor activities suspended.

The Port of Los Angeles, along with its twin port in Long Beach, handles 40 percent of America’s import trade. The fire shut down the wharf but was not immediately affecting overall operations at the port, officials said.

More than 150 firefighters had control of the fire about 2 1/2 hours after it broke out Monday night, but stubborn flames underneath the docks proved hard to reach. The fire burned under a warehouse with large metal coils inside. It was contained to about 150 feet of the dock.

Crews attacked the blaze with helicopters and trucks, but fireboats were more effective, and divers in the water helped direct them, fire spokeswoman Katherine Main said late Monday.

Smoke reached two terminals, forcing the evacuation of about 850 workers. No injuries were reported.

Terrazas said investigators determined the blaze was started during a welding operation.

The wharf, which dates to before World War II, is in San Pedro Bay in the Wilmington neighborhood, approximately 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

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