HISTORIC SOUTH CENTRAL – A well-established basement fire spread throughout an apartment building in South Los Angeles and burned for many hours, causing collapse and displacing residents.
The Los Angeles City Fire Department responded with over 100 firefighters to a structure fire that was reported at 3:03 A.M. on May 16, 2020, in the 4000 block of South Main Street in the Historic South-Central neighborhood of Los Angeles. Firefighters found a 24-unit two-story center-hallway apartment building with fire showing. The blaze appeared to have started in a densely-packed basement used for storage, which spread to the rest of the building.
Occupant safety was the immediate concern in the early morning hours, at a time when many residents are expected to be asleep in their units. A primary search ensued, while firefighters worked to locate the seat of the fire. Heavy fire was located in the basement, but access was extremely limited due to excessive storage. Firefighters battled through low visibility and extremely hot conditions for as long as they could, as the heat emanated from below. Fire attack teams were unable to directly attack the seat of the fire, but were able to cut holes in the first floor to drop a Bresnan distributor nozzle (“cellar nozzle”) down into the basement, which acts like a fire sprinkler on steroids, sending water out of nine orifices and spinning in a circular pattern (distributing 600-800 gallons per minute in a 30-foot diameter).
As fire attack teams continued their battle, search teams swept through the building and facilitated evacuations of both floors, unit-by-unit. All residents were evacuated. Only one needed additional medical care at the hospital for smoke inhalation. At least four adjacent buildings were evacuated as a precaution.
Firefighters were forced to withdraw as conditions deteriorated. As soon as the residents were safely outside, buckling walls and sagging floors led to the incident commander’s decision to withdraw all crews from the building. The fight continued from outside, with firefighters directing hose streams through windows of every unit.
The apartment built in 1924 had balloon construction that is characterized by open spaces within the walls that stretch from bottom to top - studs from basement to attic with no fire blocks. The fire extended upward unhindered from the basement, throughout the entire building, and across the attic. Eventually, the south side of the building collapsed. Due to the extensive fire damage and partial collapse, the only option was to tear down the building. Because of the structural compromise, it was unsafe for firefighters to make entry. Excavators were ordered to demolish the building and Department of Transportation removed vehicles off the street to make room for the operation. Firefighters stood by for at least two days to continue monitoring the fire and extinguish hot spots as the debris was removed.
Red Cross was notified to assist residents with interim housing. An MTA bus was ordered to give residents a sheltered place to wait, off the street, while details for accommodations were worked out. LAFD CERT teams set up on scene to support firefighters, as this turned into an extended operation.
Apartment fires are notoriously dangerous with high potential for casualties. Today, we are reminded of the importance of operable fire protection systems (especially smoke detectors), and previously-discussed emergency escape plans, and it was fortunate only one resident was injured in the blaze.