The new Ranchero Road bridge and interchange were supposed to usher in new economic life to southern Hesperia. Officials hoped it would draw restaurants, motels and gas stations to lure thousands of Interstate 15 drivers off the main artery connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
For residents, the $59-million bridge project meant another exit off the freeway and a second connection between the eastern and western parts of the High Desert town, a "release valve" for traffic on a congested Main Street.
But those plans suffered a serious setback Monday after a construction worker's torch caught the bridge on fire. The blaze ripped through the bridge's temporary wooden frame, closing the freeway as firefighters tried to douse the flames. The eight-lane bridge eventually collapsed into a pile of smoldering ash and twisted rebar; the blaze burned through Tuesday morning.
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this article referred to the bridge under construction as a six-lane bridge. It was an eight-lane bridge.
Officials spent the rest of Tuesday scrambling to clear debris, open the freeway and assess the damage. They guessed the fire would set the project — which had been months ahead of schedule — back at least six months.
"This bridge was supposed to help the community at this end of the desert," Caltrans spokeswoman Michelle Profant said. "They'll have to go back to the way things were."
Residents have long awaited the completion of the bridge, hoping it would bring a much-needed boost to Hesperia's southern neighborhoods. The 92,000-person city — located 75 miles from downtown Los Angeles, just north of the Cajon Pass — was battered when the housing bubble burst.
"The high desert was probably hit as hard as anyone during the economic downturn. This particular area is probably the least commercially developed," said Tim Watkins, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Associated Governments, which is overseeing the project. "It provides another opportunity."
Not only would the new offramp shave about 20 minutes off the drive to southern Hesperia, but Mayor Thurston Smith said the interchange had also prompted restaurants and motels to draw up construction plans in the area. The fire probably would set those projects back a year, he said.
Officials had hoped to open the bridge as early as October, instead of February as planned. Workers were just days from pouring concrete on the frame when the fire began Monday afternoon.
Erratic winds gusting to 35 mph made it difficult for firefighters to get water on the flames, officials said. Debris fell onto the freeway, keeping crews from getting close enough to make significant process.
Traffic was snarled for miles; delays continued into Tuesday as vehicles crawled through detours. At the construction site, excavators and two large cranes dismantled smoking debris, piling the bridge's charred remains onto the desert dirt next to the freeway.
The northbound lanes of the freeway opened Tuesday evening, but the southbound lanes were expected to stay closed through Wednesday.
Watkins said it was too soon to determine the extent of the damage and whether concrete support pillars and abutment walls were destabilized. Regardless, he said, the fire caused a "significant loss" in terms of time, as crews will not only have to rebuild the destroyed components, but also find new materials at new prices — which could add to the cost.
About $31 million of the project's $59-million price tag was earmarked for construction, Watkins said. It was not clear how much of that money had been spent prior to the fire, Watkins said, or how much repairing the damage would cost.
Profant said there hasn't been a project in the area that has suffered a setback like this. "It's surreal," she said.
Residents said they hope the project will bring economic opportunities.
"We don't have our own stores, we don't have our own banks," said Emily Sanchez, who lives in the Oak Hills neighborhood just east of the construction site.
Cherri Allen, who has lived in Oak Hills for about 11 years, said she was a little wary that the open space would become too populated. But, she acknowledged, more stores would be nice.
"I would really like to see a grocery store," Allen chuckled. "And banks, too. And maybe another restaurant."