An explosion in downtown Los Angeles has injured 11 firefighters, with scores more sent to put out the blaze in what was described as a factory making cannabis oil.
Captain Erik Scott of the Los Angeles fire department said “one significant explosion” shook the neighborhood around 6.30pm on Saturday and as first responders arrived they saw firefighters emerge from the building with burns and other injuries. Some of their uniforms were on fire.
Four firefighters were taken to a burns intensive care unit, two were put on ventilators due to signs of swelling airways and the other five who were hospitalized suffering a range of burns. The two firefighters on ventilators appeared to have inhaled superheated gases but as of around 10pm local time it seemed none of the injuries were life-threatening, said the fire department’s medical director, Marc Eckstein.
Firefighters were initially called to 327 East Boyd Street in the city’s Toy District for a report of a fire at a one-storey commercial building.
The LA fire department issued a “mayday” call, which means a firefighter is missing, down or trapped, and characterised the blaze as a “major emergency” with more than 230 firefighters responding. The fire spread to several nearby buildings but by 7.15pm appeared largely under control.
When the firefighters first entered the building before the explosion they saw “light to moderate smoke”, but also noticed that the pressure and heat was increasing inside, said fire chief Ralph M Terrazas: “Things didn’t seem right.” The firefighters moved to evacuate at this point and as they were starting to exit, the “explosion or flash” occurred, prompting the mayday call, he said. Some of their coats caught fire.
Scott described the business as a maker of “butane honey oil.” Butane is a flammable gas. Making the oil involves extracting the high-inducing chemical THC from cannabis plants to create a highly potent concentrate also known as hash oil. The oil is used in vape pens, edibles, waxes and other products.
Small butane canisters were later found on the street, officials said. The business where the explosion erupted may have been a wholesale distributor but the nature of the operation and the cause of the fire were still under investigation late Saturday evening.
“We have every expectation the firefighters will pull through,” Eckstein told reporters, noting that all firefighters were awake and alert upon arrival to the hospital. “It could’ve been much, much worse.”
Eckstein said there were no Covid-19 patients in the unit where the firefighters were being treated but the hospital was taking precautions to protect them.
Terrazas said the department was providing mental health services for the impacted first responders: “A lot of our firefighters were traumatized. You can imagine the amount of emotional stress.”
Jeralyn Cleveland told the Los Angeles Times she was on a roof of an apartment building a few blocks away when she saw the explosion: “Everyone in my building thought there was a bomb that went off. It was like a mushroom.”
The site of the fire was not far from Skid Row, a downtown LA neighborhood that is the epicenter of the city’s homelessness crisis.