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A fire just shut down the busiest port in the United States

Los Angeles firefighters watch as smoke from a dock fire continues to rise at the Port of Los Angeles in the Wilmington section of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sept 23, 2014. The fire that forced evacuations from the wharf continues to smolder but officials say it's under control. Nearly 12 hours after starting, the blaze is sending up huge plumes of smoke that is drifting over Los Angeles Harbor early Tuesday.
AP Photo/ Nick Ut
All it takes to throw a wrench in US trade.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A welder’s torch in Los Angeles ignited a fire in the timbers of an old wharf that have been soaking in tar and seawater since World War II, and firefighters are struggling to put out the stubborn conflagration.

As long as it burns, the US economy is taking a hit: The wharf is at the Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest port and a major gateway for cargo arriving from the Pacific rim and leaving the US west coast. Last September was the port’s busiest month of the year for imports, as 377,000 standard container loads worth of goods were processed, but now the port has been temporarily closed to container traffic until the fire—and the dangerous fumes it is producing—are extinguished.

When labor strife has led to strikes by dockworkers and truck drivers who move cargo from ship to shore and back again, the costs have shown up in US GDP. In 2012, when the port’s unionized clerical staff went on strike, the resulting shutdown stopped the movement of $1 billion in cargo each day.

The hope in Los Angeles is that the fire won’t keep the port out of commission for long, but in the meantime, millions of dollars in trade are smoldering away in a 60-year-old dock.

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