Hesperia bridge fire caused by blowtorch and wind

HESPERIA, Calif. — Crews on Tuesday reopened one side of a major California-to-Nevada route blocked by a bridge fire a day earlier that stalled traffic for hours and left charred wreckage slumping onto the highway.

Traffic began flowing around 5:30 p.m. on the northbound lanes of Interstate 15 in the Mojave Desert town of Hesperia, and the southbound lanes were expected to reopen Wednesday morning, California Highway Patrol officials said.

The uncompleted overpass, located 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, caught fire Monday afternoon when a blowtorch being used to cut metal reinforcing bars ignited support timbers. Winds gusting to 35 mph fanned the flames.

Traffic was stalled for hours as the enormous structure burned through the night. Firefighters struggled to battle flames raging deep in the temporary wooden support structure. They contended with the winds, the danger of collapse, and a limited water supply.

By morning, huge girders sagged onto the interstate below. Crews used heavy equipment to drag collapsed remnants out of lanes but they also had to cut smaller reinforcing bars apart by hand. Tons of wood and steel were removed.

“Kudos to the contractor, he’s done a heroic effort, working throughout the night” to remove the wreckage, Basem Muallem, district director of the California Department of Transportation, said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

The freeway pavement was not badly damaged by the fire, Muallem said.

“All we need to do is sweep it and then restripe it,” he said.

The bridge was intended to carry Ranchero Road over the eight lanes of I-15.

The overpass is being built at the northern foot of the approximately 4,200-foot Cajon Pass, one of the few major freeway routes crossing the east-west trending mountain ranges that separate the populous metropolitan areas of Southern California from the expanse of the Mojave and desert cities.

To the north, I-15 stretches 200 miles on to Las Vegas, as well as connecting with Interstate 40, which carries traffic to and from Arizona. To the south, below the other end of Cajon Pass, I-15 connects to a web of freeways serving millions of people from Los Angeles to San Diego.

High-desert commuters had been waiting years for the bridge, the Victor Valley Daily Press reported in January 2013, just before a groundbreaking ceremony for the $60 million, two-year interchange project in the city of Hesperia.

The bridge had been expected to be completed in early 2015 and the fire is expected to be a six-month setback, said Michelle Profant, a Caltrans spokeswoman.

The bridge’s temporary wooden structures — known as falsework — had been completed and the project was just a few days away from starting to pour concrete, Profant said.

Arriving firefighters found the fire burning across the entire bridge and saw debris falling onto lanes of the interstate below. Winds spread the flames and kept the streams of water from reaching deep into the bridge. The location on the interstate limited access to hydrants, requiring water to be hauled in by truck.

One minor smoke inhalation injury was reported.

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