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City, BFD blame Caltrans for Carmax fire that caused $2M in damages

Fire Chief says brush along Hwy 99 is not maintained appropriately
CarMax Fire
CarMax Fire in Bakersfield Destroys 85 Cars
CarMax Fire in Bakersfield Destroys 85 Cars
CarMax Fire in Bakersfield Destroys 85 Cars
CarMax Fire in Bakersfield Destroys 85 Cars
CarMax Fire in Bakersfield Destroys 85 Cars
Posted at 12:35 PM, Jul 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-02 21:01:16-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The Bakersfield Fire chief says the fire that caused more than $2 million in damages at the Carmax dealership in South Bakersfield last month can be blamed on Caltrans for not maintaining the brush surrounding the car lot properly.

Fire Chief Anthony Galagaza, in a memo sent to Bakersfield City Council dated June 26, says there was an "inevitable occurrence of fire behavior" due to a lack of brush clearance along Highway 99 on the Northbound side.

At the City Council meeting two days later, vice mayor Chris Parlier asked for an emergency item be added to the agenda to discuss the maintenance issues along the 99, and other local highways.

Parlier's resolution, which passed unanimously 6-0 (Willie Rivera was absent), was to urge Caltrans to better maintain the landscaping to prevent future fires of similar magnitude from happening.

During the discussion at Friday's meeting, Parlier and Galagaza both said they saw Caltrans crews out the day after the fire torched more than 80 vehicles on the Carmax lot, causing $2.1 million in damage. Galagaza said it was "too little, too late."

The chief added that there were 14 units from the City department on-scene alone.

Caltrans' District 6 Deputy Director or Maintenance and Operations John Liu responded to City officials about their concerns after both Parlier and Mayor Karen Goh asked what could be done about the removal of brush along the highways.

In an email to Liu, Goh called the conditions "unacceptable and dangerous."

"We have been in discussions with our Headquarters about getting additional funding to continue the great partnership with the City of Bakersfield and Bakersfield Homeless Center, and also to extend it into unincorporated Kern County," Liu wrote in response. "The challenge is that even with the additional SB-1 funding, there is still not enough funding available to meet all the required performance targets of our State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP), and SB-1 funding is focused on pavement, bridges, culverts, and electrical transportation management systems.

"Our resources allow us to do mowing or handwork once in the spring/summer after the spring rains," Liu added, "and that often occurs after the weeds start to become unsightly. Our crew is currently working along the State Route 99 corridor."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation and Bakersfield Fire Department Arson Investigators are looking into reports that a semi-truck traveling northbound on Highway 99 started the fire when the sparks from dragging chains ignited nearby vegetation.

In all, nearly 50 firefighters from the City and County battled the grass and vehicle fires.