A downtown scrap metal company containing volatile titanium and magnesium erupted in flames Tuesday, creating huge billows of smoke, forcing employees of nearby businesses to flee and causing a massive traffic jam on a nearby freeway during rush hour.
The fire broke out about 4:30 p.m. in a scrap yard at Monico Alloys Inc. when sparks from a welding torch landed on titanium shavings, said Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Steve Ruda.
For about two hours, flames fed by several tons of white hot metal parts illuminated the evening sky. More than 100 firefighters battled the stubborn blaze in an industrial neighborhood at the edge of downtown. Because burning metals can cause severe respiratory problems, the firefighters wore breathing apparatuses and oxygen tanks.
The blaze presented firefighters with a dilemma because water will not immediately extinguish many burning metals, Ruda said.
"When you put a modest amount of water on these metals, it will explode," Ruda said. "Only copious amounts of water will do the job. You need to use so much water that it will reduce the temperature of the fire and eventually it will go out."
Initially, after the first group of firefighters doused the flames, the fire worsened. Officials were extremely concerned because a few nearby warehouses were filled with 55-gallon drums of flammable liquids, Ruda said.
The firefighters had to carefully slip their hoses between the fire and the warehouses.
"They had to take a stand and make sure the fire didn't extend," Ruda said.
The fire was finally extinguished about 6:30 p.m. when engine companies, armed with hoses shooting 1,000 gallons of water a minute, and dozens of firefighters attacked the blaze from two sides and doused it with massive quantities of water.
No employees or firefighters were injured. Because winds were light, the noxious clouds from the burning metals caused no apparent problems in the area, authorities said.
Tony Delgatto, who works in a warehouse across the street from the scrap metal yard, called 911 when he saw the flames.
"I've seen a few small fires over there, but I've never seen a fire like this before," he said. "The second I looked over, I saw huge clouds of black smoke and flames. Employees were desperately trying to move equipment out of harm's way."
Commuters on nearby Interstate 10 were stalled because so many drivers slowed to look at the flames, authorities said. At one point during the evening commute, traffic was at a standstill.
Monico Alloys, located in the 2300 block of East 15th St., specializes in the collection and recycling of specialized scrap metals such as cobalt, nickel, tungsten, zirconium, magnesium and titanium. Titanium is a key component in jet engines, surgical instruments and orthopedic implants.
The firm's customers include specialty steel mills and casting foundries that make products for the aerospace, nuclear and petrochemical industries.
Times staff writer Anne-Marie O'Connor contributed to this report.