A fire that burned 86 vehicles in a CarMax lot has sparked frustration among local leaders, who say the damage could have been prevented if Caltrans had better maintained the median where the fire began.
The Bakersfield Fire Department has determined that the conditions of the grass and brush along Highway 99, where the fire began, allowed the fire to spread rapidly across the median, and eventually caused $2.1 million in damage to vehicles in the lot last week.
A semi truck dragging something could have created sparks on the road that set the fire ablaze according to the Fire Department, which added the fire would not have been nearly as bad if the area along the road had been better maintained.
“The incident could have been averted if the proper amount of clearing had taken place prior to the excessive heat of our summer months in Bakersfield,” Fire Chief Anthony Galagaza said in a memo about the fire sent to city officials.
City officials have been quick to blame Caltrans for not properly caring for the landscape surrounding Highway 58 and 99.
In an emergency resolution passed on Friday, the council voted 6-0, with Councilmember Willie Rivera absent, to urge Caltrans officials to meet with city leaders to mitigate an issue the city says has persisted for years.
In response to an email to the agency sent by Mayor Karen Goh the day after the fire, Caltrans said its resources were limited, but it would continue to have discussions with its state headquarters about allocating additional funding for Bakersfield and Kern County for road maintenance.
But funding challenges represent only a portion of the issues facing Caltrans in Kern County.
“We are further challenged with the increased amount of landscaping to maintain from all the new freeway construction in Bakersfield, not to mention the pending transfer of the Westside Parkway to us,” said Caltrans Deputy Director of Maintenance Operations John Liu, referring to the additional roadways the TRIP projects have created. “Our landscape crew also must deal with the increased amount of illegal homeless encampments in our right-of-way.”
The current funding levels only allow Caltrans crews to maintain the landscaping around state highways once a year in Bakersfield, which usually occurs after the last spring rain.
In an “extreme coincidence,” that maintenance was scheduled for the day after the CarMax fire.
However, city officials called the maintenance too little, too late.
“The conditions along our freeway are deplorable in some areas,” Councilmember Chris Parlier said at the meeting on Friday. “I feel like I’m sort of the Caltrans councilmember at this point. I cover the most ramps of anybody in the city of Bakersfield, and it’s becoming a chore.”
He said he had received numerous complaints from constituents about the landscaping conditions along the highways, and that the fire could have been worse.
“I think we could have lost several dealerships that day, not to mention potential life,” he said.
City Manager Alan Tandy said at the meeting that the conditions at the site of the fire were not an isolated incident.
“We took pictures on three or four of their freeways where there are similar fuel loads that exist today,” he said.
While local city employees maintain local roads, Caltrans is responsible state-run highways.
However, both cities and businesses can acquire some control of local freeway landscaping.
Liu pointed out in his email that cities have the option of maintaining the freeways within their cities through an arrangement with Caltrans.
Many cities in Orange County have entered into such arrangements, unlike much of the Central Valley, Liu said in the email.
Individual businesses can also enter into deals with Caltrans to clean up the areas along the highways, he added.
The two parties will continue to have ongoing conversations, Caltrans said.
"Unfortunately with the amount of resources that we have, there are a finite amount of things that Caltrans is able to do," said Caltrans Spokesperson Christian Lukens. "There’s a lot that our guys have to cover across a fairly large area such as Bakersfield. There’s always ongoing conversations."