Accidental bridge fire shuts down interstate near Los Angeles

HESPERIA, Calif. - A fire at a bridge construction site on Interstate 15 in Hesperia continued to smolder Tuesday morning, but officials predicted northbound lanes of the artery northeast of Los Angeles could be reopened in time for the evening commute.

The blaze, which burned through the night, reduced the bridge's wooden support structure to ash and caused steel girders to sag into the freeway below. Crews used heavy equipment to slowly drag collapsed remnants out of lanes.

Traffic on the northbound side of Southern California's main connector to Las Vegas could be flowing again by mid-to-late afternoon, said Basem Muallem, District 8 Director for Caltrans.

Southbound lanes are expected to reopen by Wednesday morning, he said.

"We still have a lot of work to do to restore traffic," said Ray Wolfe, director of the San Bernardino Associated Governments.

Commuters were urged to find alternate routes, including interstates 138 and 18. Officials said drivers should stay away from the Cajon Pass, which is just south of the area of Interstate 15 closed by the fire. Traffic was backed up for several miles to the north early Tuesday.

The interstate was closed around 1:30 p.m. Monday because of falling debris.

The blaze was started when a construction worker's blowtorch accidentally ignited the wooden supports of the Ranchero Road overpass bridge, San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Josh Wilkins said.

Construction on the $59 million wood and rebar project began more than a year ago, reports CBS Los Angeles. It was scheduled to open in the summer of 2015.

Dozens of firefighters battled the blaze in windy conditions, with limited access to water and with the danger that the wooden skeleton of the football-field-sized bridge would collapse.

Caltrans crews worked into the evening demolishing remnants of the wooden skeleton of the bridge, which had been under construction since early 2013, agency spokeswoman Terri Kasinga said.

When the fire erupted, Caltrans contractors were still working on top of the bridge and unaware of the blaze until being evacuated by firefighters because the flames were being pushed away by the wind. One worker suffered smoke inhalation, Wilkins said.

"The Cajon Pass is going to be a nightmare for the next 24 to 48 hours at least," Wilkins said Monday night.

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