After thousands of gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel were spilled on a crucial mountain roadway in the San Bernardino National Forest, nine truckloads of dirt have been removed Sunday in a cleanup effort spurred on by concerns about fire.
The mess began Friday morning when a truck trailing two oil tankers overturned and both containers ruptured on State Route 38 near Angelus Oaks, spilling into a creek that feeds area water supplies and harbors native species.
On Saturday, officials said they were working around the clock to reopen the closed roadway, which is an alternate route to the Big Bear Lake mountain resort area. Crews contracted by Caltrans were using backhoes to remove contaminated soil.
"We don't want any more contamination getting into any of the waterways," said Bob Poole of the U.S. Forest Service.
Officials had warned that the road could be closed for weeks as they worked to cleanup an environmental crime scene – testing water and soil to determine the extent of the contamination, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
Highway 38 is closed from Angelus Oaks to Camp Cedar Falls near Barton Flats (map), according to the InciWeb post on the incident. Middle Control Road is closed from State Highway 38 to Forest Road 1N09, and the Santa Ana River Trail is closed from Angelus Oaks to Glass Road.
The post stated that fuel had traveled from nearby Cold Creek into the Santa Ana River, to which it is a tributary. The river supplies multiple water agencies.
The California Highway Patrol said Saturday plans call for Highway 38 to remain closed until Monday, the Associated Press reported late Saturday.
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The truck, which overturned after its driver lost control just north of Angelus Oaks at about 9:30 a.m., spilled about 2,900 gallons of gasoline and 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel -- about half of the vehicle's load. The truck, pictured below, had been removed from the scene Friday evening.
California Highway Patrol officials said an investigation had determined by Saturday that the driver was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, nor did mechanical failure. Driver error caused the accident, CHP said.
Officials were hoping to finish hazardous materials cleanup by Sunday night, but Highway 38 may not be opened immediately afterward because of concern about fuel in the surrounding area.
A single tossed cigarette could cause the mountainous, wooded area to ignite – a serious concern during what promises to be a severe fire season in Southern California.
A mobile lab was set up on site to test the soil, officials said. Assessment was beginning Saturday to determine the spill's impact on wildlife.
"We have not seen one dead fish or one dead bird yet," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We’re still investigating, but so far, it's looking really good."
Water district officials in San Bernardino County reported Friday they had shut off supply lines from Cold Creek -- which the fuel spilled into -- and that water deliveries were safe and uncontaminated.
Caltrans recommended that motorists take Highway 18 or Highway 330 as alternative to and from the Big Bear area.
The Big Bear Grizzly newspaper reported that a similar spill closed Highway 38 in 2011 for about a week, and a spill on Highway 18 in 2006 closed that roadway for several weeks.
The current road closure is not far from the cabin where ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner died Feb. 12 after a multi-day manhunt.
Farther south on Highway 38 in early February, a tour bus overturned, killing seven passengers and a pickup driver while injuring dozens more.
Businesses in the area told reporters they were concerned about the economic impact of the closure, especially coming after earlier incidents this year.
"We had 18 inches of snow in one day, so the road was closed that day. Then the Dorner thing took two days," said Cathy Berens, owner of the Oaks Restaurant in Angelus Oaks.
On Saturday afternoon, a fatal head-on collision farther southwest on Highway 38 closed a portion of the curving roadway at Bryant Street for about 30 minutes, CHP said.
View Highway 38 Closed After Tanker Spill in a larger map