Oakland firefighters battled 125 fires on Caltrans property in 12 months

Oakland firefighters have responded to more than 125 fires on Caltrans property over 12 months, prompting questions about cost and responsibility.

A four-page informational report was presented to the city’s Finance and Management Committee Tuesday. It was requested by two council members following a series of fires along Interstate 580 in Oakland and ongoing encampment fires on Caltrans property within city limits.

The Oakland Fire Department said from October 2021 to October 2022, there were 818 encampment fires. At least 63 were at Caltrans property along Wood Street.

"It’s extremely concerning," Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Michael Hunt said. "The skyrocketing rate of these over the last four or five years has completely shifted where resources are needed and where they should be going forward."

KTVU found there are at least two encampment fires a day in Oakland and the total estimated cost to battle them tops $1 million.

There are typically two engines and eight firefighters who respond and remain on scene for a little more than an hour, the report said.

Each incident is estimated to cost $1,245. That means at the Wood Street encampment, there has been about $78,441 in total costs to respond to those fires.

"It not only speaks to the housing and homelessness crisis that the entire state is facing but it also speaks to the fact that cities are just not getting their arms around the issue," Hunt said.

There has also been an increase in fires along the freeway, oftentimes caused by overheating cars, dry vegetation and arson.

Since last October, there have been 62 freeway fires costing the city more than $77,000 to respond.

Some Oakland council members accused Caltrans of not doing its job to reduce fire risk, clear brush, debris and hazards along the highways and on its properties.

"The Caltrans properties are in a state of risk and lack of maintenance every day, all the time," Finance and Management Committee Chair Rebecca Kaplan said. "Your properties are in a dangerous condition and you have been negligent in failing to clean them."

Starting in mid-September several fires were sparked along I-580. The first occurred near 35th Avenue and destroyed several homes, cars and property. The cause has gone undetermined.

At least two other fires nearby were ruled arson.

And another incident was considered accidental along I-580 near Seminary Avenue, when a car caught fire and spread to the hillside vegetation. It took 70 firefighters several hours to contain the flames.

Vegetation clearing in those areas began in the days following that fire.

The fire department said Caltrans has effectively cleared areas along Highway 24 and Highway 13 considered in the high fire hazard severity zone, but questions if enough attention has been given to other high traffic corridors like 580.

"It’s about ongoing coordination and making sure they’re being responsive when we call to say here are some areas we have concern," Hunt said.

Caltrans told KTVU it could not comment and needed more time to review the report in order to respond appropriately.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU