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CBS47 Special Report: Copper Theft

See what we uncovered inside the city's growing problem of copper theft.
It's a major problem on the streets of Fresno: lights out because of copper wire theft.  There are some 4,000 street lights that are off, which is about ten percent all the lights in Fresno.

So what does the lack of light look like?  CBS47 went to work to find out, obtaining a list from the City of Fresno that has every street light that's been reported out.  To get a visual, we got a map of the city, and we're putting a pin in every spot where there's a light out.

It took CBS47’s team of interns two weeks to pin-point the out-of-service street lights all over Fresno.  Thousands of pins later, look at the map to see how big the problem is.

Many neighborhoods have been literally left in the dark, including River Vista Drive in Northwest Fresno.  We took our map to Koligian Park, where lights are out all over the surrounding streets.  Adults and kids were interested in what we had to show them.

“I thought we were the only ones that had that problem.  I didn't really know the other neighborhoods have that same thing, said 14-year-old Meharbaan Chahal.

Paula Younger lives off Figarden Loop.  She has reported 18 lights out in her neighborhood and is still waiting for them to be fixed.

“I’m aggravated because they've been out for eight months,” said Younger.

Fresno councilmember Lee Brand has been troubled by the issue for years.  He took a drive with us through his Northeast Fresno district, pointing out several stretches where the streets are pitch black.

“I've got a lot of emails from people in these Granville tracks up here, and these have been out, some for up to a year,” said Brand.

While the city is well-aware of the issue, Public Works Director Patrick Wiemiller says there's no way to keep up with copper wire thieves. The city is losing about $75,000 a month because of theft and vandalism.

“There've been times where we were getting out-paced 5-1.  For every one light we'd repair, five more would be stolen.  So anyone facing those sorts of workload challenges, it creates a situation like this where we have incredible back logs,” said Wiemiller.

But even with those statistics, Brand says he wanted to find a solution.

‘To me, that was unacceptable because this is a serious public safety issue and a liability issue,” said Brand.

Several months ago Brand found about a million unclaimed dollars in the budget and got the council on board to help solve the street light crisis.  Now theft prevention is part of the solution.  Where thieves were once ripping wire from electrical boxes, crews are now filling up with concrete.  The work started about a month ago, and we're told it'll take just six months to fill up all the wire boxes in the city.

There are about 42,000 street lights in Fresno.  About 25,000 have underground wires, the kind thieves are targeting.  Preventing copper wire theft costs $20 per pole, for a total of $500,000.  

Compare that to the $400 it costs to repair each street light hit by thieves.  To fix them all it would cost ten million dollars.

Meanwhile, crews are also trying to replace copper wire, but all the funding for that isn't available yet.  The city hopes there's an end in sight to this budget and safety nightmare, but already Fresno police have seen thieves getting crafty.  In west Fresno criminals managed to dig underneath a cemented wire box to get the copper wire.  Fresno police now have a task force to fight this kind of theft.  Sergeant Mark Hudson says cementing wire boxes is forcing thieves to target other sources.

“They've kind of switched a little bit.  We're seeing a new trend that they're stealing copper wire from places like businesses and abandoned homes.  The air conditioning units are being attacked,” said Sgt. Hudson.

Another new trend is knocking down telephone poles.  With copper wire selling for over $3 dollars a pound, depending on the type, Hudson doesn't see an end in sight to the growing problem.  Part of his job is to make sure metal recyclers aren't buying from criminals.  So far during the sting operations, no one has been caught.

“I don't like thieves and once you've been a victim, you work really hard to make a living, and then at night they take your stuff, you've got a lot of sympathy for the victims out there that are losing material,” said Randy Tosi, owner of Bruno’s Iron & Metal.

Tosi prides himself on being one of the most reputable recyclers in town.  He has an intricate security system and works regularly with law enforcement to nab suspected thieves.  But he admits, not every recycler is doing the right thing.

So while there may soon be an end in sight to Fresno's light pole problem, unfortunately copper wire theft is likely here to stay.

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Fresno, CA

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