RAFU STAFF REPORT
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Steve Nagano said as for the second time in just over a year, Little Tokyo residents were awakened by the sound of an explosion.
The fire ripped through a three-story commercial building early Tuesday morning on the north side of Third and Los Angeles streets.
“About 2 a.m. what started as a few pops, probably CO2 canisters exploding, an escalating roar, like a jet plane flying low for about 30 to 45 seconds, woke us up,” said Nagano, who resides a half block away at Teramachi with his wife, Patty.
A total of 150 firefighters were sent to the scene to battle the flames — an effort that was continuing several hours afterwards. Traffic was routed away from the area as a precaution.
No injuries were reported and no evacuations were ordered. Casa Heiwa, a multi-unit residential complex, as well as the offices of Little Tokyo Service Center, are nearby on the same side of Third.
“From a peak of 150 firefighters assigned to this major emergency fire during the night … 78 are still on scene, continuing their defensive posture with hose lines to fully extinguish stubborn flames that remain within the century-old 23,790-square-foot, three-story masonry building that housed five businesses, including two that are believed to have sold ‘smoking supplies’ on the ground level, with two floors of commercial storage above,” Brian Humphrey of the LAFD said in a statement shortly before 8 a.m.
“Though no firefighters or civilians were injured by those canisters, or in the ensuing fire, flames from the involved building and/or canisters appear to have ignited tents and debris in a homeless encampment across the street, as well as spread within the structure to involve all three floors of the fire building, ultimately burning through the roof,” Humphrey said.
On Tuesday morning, bits of shrapnel, remnants of the butane canisters, could be found along Third Street. This is the third fiery conflagration involving smoke shops in the area in recent years.
On May 16, 2020, a dozen firefighters were injured battling a similar explosion and fire at a nearby single-story warehouse, between Third and Boyd streets.
Six months after that fire, two businesses — Smoke Tokes and Green Buddha — agreed to a plea deal in a criminal case stemming from the blaze.
Steve Sungho Lee, 56, who owns the building at 327 E. Boyd St. as well as several other properties, faces numerous criminal charges in connection with the 2020 blaze.
A hearing for Lee and the smoke shop Biohazard was postponed until June 25. In that incident, investigators found illegally stored hazardous materials and other egregious violations.
Nagano said that it was truly fortunate that no one was hurt.
“From my bedroom window I saw black smoke from what I thought could have been Casa Heiwa. I opened the Citizen app and saw videos that showed the fire at 3rd and Los Angeles and not Casa Heiwa …. Fortunately no one was injured even though an encampment across the street was inflamed. Deja vu all over again,” he said