Smoking supplies explode as downtown L.A. building erupts in flames

A fire that erupted at a downtown Los Angeles commercial building overnight burned through the roof and charred the three-story structure early Tuesday as more than 100 firefighters battled the blaze.

The flames ignited at 1:50 a.m. at a 100-year-old building in the 200 block of East 3rd Street that housed at least five businesses on the ground level, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. At least two of the businesses contained smoking supplies, including pressurized gas canisters, which caused small explosions during the fire. The building’s top two levels housed commercial storage.

No injuries were reported, LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said. Despite the massive blaze, evacuations of a nearby retirement home and other high-rise apartments were not needed, he said.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Kimberly Vargas, 26, woke to the sound of an explosion just outside the window of her East 3rd Street apartment. A lifelong resident of her building, Vargas is accustomed to random loud noises or fireworks. But after the initial boom, a loud, steady crackling that sounded like gunfire wrested her out of bed. Then she smelled smoke.

“That’s finally when I knew something was happening because it went from two explosions and then it was finally smoke,” Vargas said. “Your mind just goes to the worst places these days.”

She called 911 and then went outside, where several of her neighbors had gathered to watch what was happening at the building next door. Flames lapped the structure, which Vargas said housed gift and luggage stores in addition to the smoke shops.

Fire tore through a three-story commercial building in downtown Los Angeles early Tuesday morning.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Across the street, an encampment of tents where homeless people lived also caught fire, LAFD officials said.

More than 90 minutes after the fire began, 150 first responders were working at the scene, according to an LAFD alert. But that number had fallen by half by 7:30 a.m.

Humphrey said he expected firefighters would have to stay at the building through the morning to finish battling the fire and then clean up.

Vargas, who remained perched at her window most of the morning to watch and film the incident, said she planned to work from home for the day, buy an air purifier for her apartment, which smelled like smoke, and go to sleep early Tuesday night.

“I’m just happy, honestly, that everything’s OK,” she said.

Video from the scene showed that the blaze charred much of the building’s 23,000 square feet. Small canisters from the smoking stores littered the street.

“There may have been other [materials] inside,” Humphrey said, adding that in past incidents, chemicals like butane or nitric acid have caused explosions in fires.

Last year, nearly a dozen firefighters were injured in a fire in downtown L.A. caused by an explosion at a smoke shop.

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