Firefighters battle a blaze on Third Street in Little Tokyo on Wednesday night. (Photo by James E. Cole)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

A century-old building on Third and Los Angeles streets in Little Tokyo burned for the second time in two years on Wednesday evening.

Firefighters recognized the three-story building as the site of a previous burn, and took a defensive firefighting posture for nearly two hours until the fire was controlled, just after 9 p.m.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Nicholas Prange said it was unsafe for firefighters to enter the building.

“There was no collapse during the incident, but the building has been red-tagged by [the Department of] Building and Safety and nearby sidewalks are closed to the public as a precaution, as there are signs of compromised structural integrity,” Prange said.

The fire spread into one unit of an adjacent five-story residential building but was stopped with the help of a sprinkler. Casa Heiwa, which is next door, was not damaged.

James E. Cole was nearby and took some photos of the building fully engulfed in flames.

“I was driving down Los Angeles Street when I saw the fire. I was immediately afraid that another part of the Japanese community would be lost,” Cole said.

In June 2021, a fire broke out at the same building, destroying several businesses and the Little Tokyo Art Complex, a creative space for more than 20 local artists.

The building has been boarded up and vacant since then. Steve Nagano, a resident of Teramachi, walked by to survey the damage on Thursday morning and noted that the building continued to smolder.

“The air has that burnt, wet smell. Wondering if it was actually empty and not squatters ‘living’ there. As far as I know it was supposed to be unoccupied,” Nagano said.

A lawsuit was filed in June against the building’s owner, L for Lofts, LLC, for failing to take precautions to prevent widespread destruction that impacted the careers and livelihoods of many working artists. The civil suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, is still pending.

“Buildings like this don’t suddenly catch fire and burn to the ground without at least negligence,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Cyrus Shahriari. “The owner knew the structure was a major safety hazard, and our clients want answers about how this disaster happened.”   

The fire is only the most recent incident to have occurred in the vicinity of Third Street in recent years. On May 16, 2020 an explosion and fire on the 300 block of Boyd Street injured 12 firefighters. In April, a court commissioner dismissed charges against the building’s owner, Steve Sungho Lee, and allowed him to enter a diversion program instead.

The south side of Third is known as Bong Row, due to the proliferation of shops selling smoking paraphernalia.

The Arts District-Little Tokyo Neighborhood Council also sent a letter to City Attorney Mike Feuer in August 2021 urging the creation and implementation of a fire prevention education program in the Downtown area.

“These fires too often threaten our community and more importantly, the people who live and work in and near Downtown’s older buildings,” said David Ikegami, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association.

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