HESPERIA, Calif. — All three lanes of Interstate 15 in Hesperia were closed in both directions Monday after a construction worker’s blowtorch accidentally ignited the wooden supports of an overpass that was under construction.
The freeway — Southern California’s main connector to Las Vegas — has been closed since 1:30 p.m. because of falling debris, said California Highway Patrol supervisor Carlos Juarez.
Officials said drivers should stay away from the Cajon Pass, which is just south of the area of Interstate 15 closed by the fire.
Dozens of firefighters were battling the blaze in windy conditions, with limited access to water, and high danger that the wooden skeleton of the football-field-sized bridge would collapse, said San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Josh Wilkins.
Hesperia is about 3 hours southwest of Las Vegas on the way to Los Angeles.
A Las Vegas resident on the scene indicated that traffic might be backed up to El Cajon Pass.
Christina Munoz, an usher at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, was stuck at the scene and reported that traffic is moving “inch by inch.”
Caltrans contractors were still working on top of the bridge after it caught fire and were unaware of the blaze until being evacuated by firefighters because the flames were being pushed away by the wind. One worker suffered from smoke inhalation, Wilkins said.
So far, Wilkins estimated, a third of the bridge has burned and he said Caltrans engineers are monitoring the flames to alert firefighters of a possible collapse. There were 55 firefighters battling the flames in winds that gusted to 35 mph.
“Right now the wind is helping and hurting us,” Wilkins said. “If it were going the opposite direction, that whole bridge would be gone right now.”
But, he added the wind also was pushing water away from the blaze as firefighters fought the flames that were ignited when the worker used his blowtorch on rebar.
“Traffic is backed up, but we are moving inch by inch,” Munoz told the Review-Journal. “Fire trucks, helicopters, police vehicles and highway patrol are everywhere.”
“Smoke and flames can be seen, but at a distance. There was a woman next to us saying she is about to run out of gas and asked us to let pass to cut on to the shoulder,” Munoz reported.
“People are talking to each other. We left Ontario Mills at 1:30 p.m. and we hit the traffic at around 2 p.m. The bridge looks like it’s made out of wood, so it was burning pretty good when we first got here. We are closer to the bridge, now a half-mile.”
Firefighters also have limited access to water because the area is newly constructed, and the nearest hydrant is half a mile away, Wilkins said. The department can’t use water-dropping helicopters because the weight of the falling water would likely lead to a collapse of a wooden structure that would have served as a frame when concrete was poured.
“The Cajon Pass is going to be a nightmare for the next 24 to 48 hours at least,” Wilkins said. “So if at all possible, avoid it altogether, because there is just no way they’re going to open it any time soon.”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal contributed to this report.