Criminal Investigation Launched After Massive Downtown L.A. Fire (PHOTOS)

UPDATE at 3:26 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, 2014: The ATF is sending a National Response Team to help with the investigation. Details below.

Authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the cause of a massive overnight fire that shut down portions of two major freeways downtown, the L.A. Fire Department says.

Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also at the scene of the blaze at 906 N. Fremont Ave., where a multistory apartment complex called Da Vinci was under construction.

ATF spokeswoman Meredith K. Davis says the matter is still an LAFD case but that, as the location becomes safer and hot spots are fully doused, final jurisdictional responsibility will be determined.

Launching a criminal investigation into such a large fire is a matter of routine, LAFD spokeswoman Katherine Main told us. "The arson investigators treat it as a crime until it's proven otherwise," she said.

See also: Photos of the aftermath of the fire

However, she confirmed the observations of some of her department colleagues that it was rare to see flames consume such a large footprint all at once.

"It was an unusual or once-in-a-lifetime fire," she said. "We haven't had one like this in 10 years with this volume and intensity."

Main blamed some of the blaze's intensity on the "exposed wood" of the under-construction building.

The 1:20 a.m. blaze drew about one-quarter of the city's on-duty firefighters, 250 in all, and wasn't declared finished until 3:56 a.m., LAFD officials said. It erupted nearly across the street from the department's Fire Station 3 at 108 N. Fremont Ave., authorities said.

Firefighters literally looked out the door to find a building fully involved, fire officials said. Hot spots remained well into the afternoon.

"Once the on-scene personnel are able to safely enter, they’ll determine what investigative resources are needed," the ATF's Davis said.

The property appears to abut an intersection of the 110 and 101 freeways, and portions of both roadways were shut down for a time this morning as a precaution. Fire officials feared that parts of the charred, 526-unit structure would fall onto lanes.

Flames could be seen for miles, inspiring spectacular photographs and video. Flames caused at least 160 windows at the nearby L.A. Department of Water and Power John Ferraro Building to crack, officials said.

And an adjacent city building at 221 N. Figueroa St. was damaged by fire and by sprinkler water, authorities said.

The Da Vinci is a project of controversial downtown-area developer Geoff Palmer, known for his new-Italianate apartment complexes.

In 2003 it was alleged that Palmer's firm illegally razed the last single-family home in Bunker Hill, an 1887 Queen Anne–style structure that appeared to be on property adjacent to the Da Vinci complex.

If that Da Vinci fire wasn't enough for first responders to deal with, at 4:09 a.m. another major blaze was reported a mile and a half away at a commercial building at 2871 W. Seventh St. in the Westlake neighborhood.

After that blaze was doused, firefighters said there appeared to be no connection between the emergencies. However, in an eerie and rare move, the LAFD deployed a pair of helicopters to patrol the city in search of more possible fires.

UPDATE at 2:15 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, 2014: Authorities have established a tip line for witnesses or anyone who has information about the blaze: 213-893-9850.

UPDATE at 3:28 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, 2014: Davis of the ATF says, "A request was received and approved for an ATF National Response Team (NRT) activation."

"We will have a strong presence on scene working it with them," she said, "but the jurisdiction remains theirs."

According to the ATF:

The NRT assists federal, state, local and tribal officers in fire and explosives incidents by providing examinations of the scene, interview assistance and expert testimony.

The teams have only been activated four times this year, including a deployment to help investigate an Oct. 25 storage-facility fire in Venice, the bureau says.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.

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