A specialized team of federal investigators joined local authorities Wednesday in a probe to determine if this week’s raging apartment fire that torched a city block in downtown Los Angeles was the result of arson, as several experts suspect.

The “national response team” from the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigative effort that could take weeks — or even months — to reach a conclusion, Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said.

“The LAFD Arson-Counterterrorism Section has had numerous investigators working this case since the fire broke out early Monday morning,” Terrazas said. “We have already been working in close coordination with local investigators from the ATF and the LAPD.

“We requested the ATF national response team for a number of reasons. They include the size and scope of the damage to the apartment building and the adjacent high-rises; the likelihood of a high dollar loss; (and) the complexity of the investigation in terms of tracking down witnesses, surveillance video and conducting numerous interviews,” Terrazas said.

“This building — to remind you all — is of enormous size. It’s 900 feet long by 200 feet deep and seven stories tall, or approximately 1.3 million square feet. Twenty (ATF) national response team members have flown in from across the country to join our LAFD arson investigators and our LAPD detectives, who have been working around the clock since the fire broke out early Monday morning,” Terrazas said.

Terrazas cautioned that investigators “are not treating this as a criminal investigation.”

“But so far we have not ruled anything out. We will examine every angle and track down every lead. The investigation may take weeks or it may take months given the scope of the damage and the amount of potential witnesses and other factors that must be examined,” Terrazas said.

Terrazas urged anyone with information on the case to call the arson hotline number, (213) 893-9850.

Carlos Canino, ATF special agent in charge of the Los Angeles field office, said federal investigators were already sifting through the wreckage of what had been the construction site of the Da Vinci apartment complex at 906 N. Fremont Ave.

“As you can see from the magnitude of this fire, we have some concerns about safety,” Canino said. “So this morning our safety officers did a walk- through, and that’s what they’re doing now. That’s our number one concern is to get everybody on and off the scene as safely as possible.

“Like the chief said, there is no timetable for us. The evidence inside that building is going to dictate how long this is going to go,” Canino said.

“As you can see, it’s a city block burned to the ground. So with that, we’re ‘all-in’ at the ATF LA Field Division on this one. All hands on deck. … like I told the chief, all the resources of ATF are available. If we need to bring people in from all over the country we will. We will spare no expense. We won’t leave a stone unturned in there. We want to get to the bottom of this,” Canino said.

With a major rain storm expected to hit the Southland beginning Thursday, Canino said investigators have “logistics in place” to handle weather-related issues.

“We have things in place … to work in the weather,” Canino said. “The only time we’ll call it off is if it becomes too dangerous for the investigators to work inside, or if there’s lightning. Evidence is in there.”

And Canino noted that the building already has been doused with water by firefighters who worked to extinguish the fire.

“They’ve poured all sorts of water on that fire, so a little more is not going to hurt it,” Canino said.

As the city and federal authorities were speaking to reporters at the corner of North Fremont and West Temple streets — near the site of Monday’s fire — firefighters had to extinguish another flare-up in the rubble.

The inferno destroyed the under-construction building, damaged three high-rise buildings and prompted hours-long freeway closures that affected thousands of commuters. The fire was so hot that it melted freeway signs, and at least 160 plate-glass windows were destroyed in a nearby city-owned building.

Accelerant-sniffing dogs were being deployed as part of the investigation. Arson investigators said they also plan to look at surveillance video from surrounding buildings.

“When we see a fire this well developed … (we think) perhaps it was set,” LAFD Deputy Chief Joseph Castro said earlier this week, noting that flammable liquids are used on construction sites.

The standing buildings that were damaged include a 16-story city-owned building at 221 N. Figueroa St., where three floors sustained fire damage and 14 floors had water damage; a 15-story Los Angeles County Health Department building at 313 N. Figueroa St. which sustained radiant heat damage, including melted blinds and broken glass; and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters at 111 N. Hope St.

One of the city-owned towers — the 16-story structure — could be closed for six months, while the other could reopen by Thursday, city officials said. At the county-owned building, some employees were back at their desks today.

Late this morning, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Vital Records Office, in the damaged building at 313 N. Figueroa St., reopened, according to the county.

The fire was reported at 1:20 a.m. Monday. The flames could be seen for miles as they consumed an entire city block and sent blazing scaffolding onto the Harbor (110) Freeway.

Terrazas said more than 250 firefighters were deployed to fight the fire.

—City News Service

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