20190625-bc-brushfire (copy)

In this file photo, a fireman extinguishes hot spots from vehicle fires. At least 86 vehicles at the Bakersfield CarMax were damaged or destroyed when a fire that apparently started along Highway 99 spread onto nearby property.

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."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

(13) comments


Just NORTH of where the fire happened on highway 99 from the onramp of Panama Lane to Pacheco Road is the most overgrown weeded area that I have seen. It is literally was fire waiting to happen. This makes the entire city of Bakersfield look trashy and dirty by the thousands of passers by going thru Bakersfield. Do we as citizens of this area need to cut down the weeds ourselves???


If I built my home right up against unoccupied BLM land and it burned, would the State be responsible? Is Carmax exempt from all existing "Defensible Space" requirements? Are Carmax employees so brain dead that they couldn't move some cars away from a brush fire? Oh well, let's just raise the gas tax again to get better brush mowing done.


if it was a fire hazard why didn't someone local notify the State?......I get notified when the weeds are a problem...lets get Karen a golf-cart and a big lined notepad …and a tram to pull the city council and fire chiefs around so her posse can tour the city in tow and make a preventive tado list.....risk ….fire storms - abated....check…..or stop building new roads and take care of what we already have…this story is really embarrassing..


What is missing...no comments by our impotent faceless local leaders Grove and Fong! Also check out the westside freeway! Overgrown with tumbleweeds, dead grass and trash! Who is responsible for this mess?

Fram Smith

I read on Facebook that during the car fire, the CarMax employees played " Disco Inferno " by The Trammps on their phones ; they busted out some pretty hip moves while those cars burned They got some amazing video for Snapchat. So obviously , the comments about the CarMax employees doing nothing during the fire , are just groundless and untrue.


Having trouble dealing with the homeless camping on CalTrans right of way? Try arresting them


, Caltrans said its resources were limited The new California motto.......


"City blames poor Caltrans maintenance for CarMax fire" Prepare to ante up! This ought to level the field now that the new gas tax is in effect.


Carmax apparently lost 80+ cars. They’ll want to blame (and sue) some governmental entity for not cutting back the grass, etc. If Carmax sues County, hopefully Kern will boycott. At least Sonic gave something like $3,000.


Finally something we agree on 100%


It appears there was vegetation burning between the chain link fence and the cars. I would assume this area between the fence and the cars belonged to car max. This appears to be the vegetation that was closest to the cars and started the cars burning. Am I missing something? It is always easy to blame government.


I think you are right. I wonder what thought process led to some one thinking it was a good idea to back the cars fuel tanks over dry brush. Could there have been a test drive and that car with a hot catalytic converter backed over the brush? Catalytic converters start fires. This problem did not sneak up on the dealership. I also wonder when the last fire dept. Inspection took place. It may not have a yearly requirement. But perhaps it may have to be done a few times a year. Just like buildings in the county areas. Of course if this was started by a truck sparking they are responsible. I find it unusual that, that much sparking took place and no one got a plate # and called 911. But someone at the dealership should have been proactive and complained to the fire department or Caltrans.


I am wondering where all of the CarMax employees were, and why THEY didn't begin MOVING the cars when they saw the fire approaching. Seems to me they are partly responsible for the damage to at least half of those cars.

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