Ventura City Fire Department released the following information:
Ventura’s Community Services Director, Peter Brown, was driving to work Friday morning and noticed an all too familiar sight of smoke emanating from the Ventura River at the 101 bridge. However, this time was a bit different -- the asphalt on the right shoulder was also smoking and melting in places.
He knew this was not an ordinary river bottom fire. Peter made contact with Ventura City Fire just after 7:30 a.m. and guided them into the location. “Flames were running laterally down a vault that spanned the entire bridge.”
Captain Ben Davis stated, “The confined space runs parallel with the bridge and is directly under the concrete. The space is about two and a half feet tall, five to seven feet wide, and almost 1000 feet in length.
A vagrant camp was located at the point of entry to the vault and we believe that space was stuffed with personal items. The fire really took off and we were registering temperatures exceeding 500 degrees, this coupled with hardly any access, made this a challenging fire.”
The vault is used to run several utilities the span of the bridge. High voltage power warnings are posted in multiple areas adjacent to the fire so firefighters were very cautious attempting to put out the fire while trying to avoid electrocution.
Cal Trans and Southern California Edison arrived on scene and assisted in putting together a coordinated effort to limit the damage to the bridge.
The situation was made even more difficult because the asphalt above the fire became so hot that it was emanating vapors. Thermal imaging cameras detected surface temperatures in excess of 200 degrees and spots became sponge like. Cal Trans dispatched a bridge specialty crew out of Los Angeles to assess damage and to determine if the bridge could still safely be used.
The fire was knocked down in a little more than two and a half hours. Residual smoke and steam, trapped within the vault, continued to flow out of drain holes for hours. The vault remained so hot, that firefighters could not enter to physically search the vault.
Ventura dispatched their Urban Search and Rescue Team to use remote cameras that are designed to search through small tight spaces, to assess the extent of the fire spread. Even though visibility was poor, the fire appeared to be completely extinguished in all parts of the 1000-foot span.
The full extent of the damage remains uncertain until a Cal Trans Engineering Team can make access. The fire was contained to a single compartmentalized section of the bridge that did not run under the actual driving lanes.
It is expected that temperatures in the vault will be too hot to enter for the next 24 hours. In the meantime, the shoulder area of the freeway on the bridge will be coned off until inspected.
Cal Trans boarded up the access point of the vault and will place a permanent lockable door on the opening this next week.