The rampant theft of copper and other metals in Southern California has begun hitting Inland Empire freeways hard, leaving motorists in increasing danger as traffic signals and lights in underpasses and rest areas have gone dark, law enforcement and Caltrans officials said Tuesday.
Thieves also have swiped guardrails and irrigation systems along roadways.
"We had $15,000 in copper tools and wire stolen from our Victorville maintenance yard on Sunday," said Terri Kasinga, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation.
"When you get a missing guardrail and lights and signals that don't work, that's hazardous.
"We can't get out there in five minutes and fix it," she said at a news conference called to highlight the growing problem in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Caltrans is asking the public to report suspicious behavior. Officials say they want stiffer fines and prison sentences for offenders and closer scrutiny of recyclers.
Metal thieves are wearing reflective vests and hard hats so they look more like Caltrans workers, said Joe Ramos, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.
"They don't have the magnetic decal on their car, which is one way to tell they are not Caltrans workers," he said.
Ramos said most thieves work alone and are supporting drug habits, but some are operating in groups.
The Inland Empire has been especially hard hit because of its size, rural geography and high levels of poverty.
Last week, a house in Hesperia burned down after firefighters found critical copper parts had been stolen from every hydrant on the block. Some 13,800 people lost power last year when thieves hit a Hesperia electrical substation.
Copper is preferred by criminals because it can fetch more than $3 a pound at a recycling center. But other metals also have become fair game.
The aluminum bleachers at the Kessler Park Little League field in Bloomington were stolen last summer. Bronze plaques were taken from the facade of the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands. The pool at the Boys & Girls Club of San Bernardino was temporarily closed because all its metal fixtures had been stolen.
Catalytic converters on cars are increasingly targeted for their platinum.
"This has become a serious threat to public safety," said San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzalez.
"Part of it is because of the economic downturn, but it's also because in the last three years, copper has gone from 70 cents a pound to $3.30 a pound.
"Now," she said, "vacant houses are a big target. We caught five copper wire thieves who were stealing so much that they were making a good living."
Thieves are taking the brass heads off irrigation systems along the roads.
"We replaced 12 sprinkler heads at Riverside Avenue yesterday and by noon today they were all gone," Kasinga said. After that, "we replaced them with plastic. I think that might be the way we go."
California legislators have sponsored bills to crack down on metal theft, including efforts to require recyclers to closely monitor what they take in.
Billboards with messages like "Pull the Line, Do the Time" dot the 10 Freeway, warning copper thieves that they are being watched.
Caltrans officials said more surveillance cameras will be installed but noted that losses would inevitably be borne by taxpayers.
The price tag in the Inland Empire just for the last six months is estimated at almost $300,000, Kasinga said.
"We really need to make this an issue, and it has to start with the recyclers," she said.
"We really need to police them."
Anyone who sees metal theft occurring along the roadways is asked to call 911 or the CHP at (800) 835-5247.