EDITORIAL—Trifecta: Three fires in 17 days puts spotlight on Caltrans

By Patric Hedlund, Editor

A good-natured reader sent a quick email to us this week. The third Lebec fire in 17 days was just heading toward Digier Canyon as I received his note. Once again the fire started from the Caltrans right-of-way easement along the southbound lane of the Interstate 5 near the Fort Tejon exit of the Grapevine.

“Just wondering,” the reader asked. “Is there a fire bug loose in Lebec?”

The answer is ‘yes.’ There are 77,000 fire bugs loose each day, passing along the Grapevine. That is how many passenger cars and big rig vehicles are estimated to use the road daily. A Kern County fire investigator said at least 20% of those—or maybe many more—are likely to overheat when coming up the steepest grade of the infamous Grapevine. Older cars with failing catalytic converters are likely to spit out sizzling pieces of metal, hot as bullets, onto dry roadside grass. Big rigs with overheated brakes spray kindling-dry weeds with showers of sparks.

Failure by Caltrans to implement adequate weed abatement on their property is putting the Mountain Communities at risk.

Read page 7 today. Comments from six community members make the case clearly.

When we asked a spokesman for Kern County’s Fire Planning Division why weed abatement was not enforced along the roadways, he sounded puzzled, then he said, “Our jurisdiction for fuel clearance is private property owners.”

When we asked Caltrans spokesperson Tami Conrado about their weed abatement program, she explained in detail that mowing weeds in that terrain during the dry months could cause a spark and start a fire. It sounded logical, if they were not responsible for maintaining one of the highest volume traffic flows in the state across that same stretch of roadway. Cars and trucks cause sparks. And the fires have, indeed, started.

“Caltrans has the same obligations as a homeowner,” the helpful Conrado said. “If the Kern County Fire Department tells us to clear our land, we have to do that.”

So the question comes back around to our beloved Kern County Fire Department. How many citations have they issued to Caltrans in the past three years for failure to comply with weed abatement requirements?

Surely, as our readers point out, preventing fires is far more economical than fighting them.

This is part of the July 26, 2013 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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