Thieves with an apparent eye on recycling have done about $66,500 worth of damage to electrical hookups at Dogwood Campground in Blue Jay, Calif., by stealing copper wire, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officials said Monday (April 23).
During the past six weeks, wires made from the semi-precious metal have been cut at 19 RV hookups at the 46-acre USFS campground, located off Highway 18 just east of Daley Canyon Road, Forest Service spokesman John Miller told the Mountain News, Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
In addition, an electrical panel that distributes power to the hookups and other uses has been extensively vandalized. The panel is located about 1.1 miles from the campground’s entrance.
Of the 94 campsites, about 20 have electrical power for RVs, Miller said.
“The $66,500 is the estimated total cost to repair the damage,” Miller said, including labor, repairs to electrical boxes and new copper wire. “But until the contractors get in and see it, who knows? It could go higher.”
As they led a tour of the damaged sites on Monday, Miller and USFS colleague Bob Poole said the suspects had even cut a few feet of wire from a lighted display board at a campground amphitheater.
Poole said “six or eight” brass drinking fountains had also been removed from their bases, leaving only threaded water pipes in their wake.
“Wire theft has been problematic in urban areas,” Miller said. “Now it’s spreading to the mountains. This really concerns me.”
Authorities have reported an increasing number of copper thefts, including both wire and plumbing pipes, in recent months, as prices for the metal have increased and unemployment has risen because of the recession.
Poole said the campground — which remains closed for winter and is scheduled to reopen on Memorial Day weekend — is patrolled, but the thefts occurred in spite of Forest Service personnel driving through.
Miller said the Forest Service is asking people who use the campground for hiking or walking their dogs during its closed periods to keep alert. He asks them to call 9-1-1 if they notice a wire theft in progress, or phone the USFS office, (909) 382-2600, if they notice suspicious activity that doesn’t constitute a crime in progress.
Miller said the worst outcome could be that if thefts continue it could lead to a full closure of the campground so that even benign uses would be halted.
“The last thing we want to see is scofflaws preventing our friends and neighbors from using such a beautiful site,” he said.
Poole said thieves actually targeted two power panels, but damage at one was minimal because the wires were encased in metal conduit. At the heavily damaged panel, he said, wires were routed through plastic conduit, which the perpetrators apparently sliced through after cutting the main power feed.
Miller said USFS is just one government agency that has experienced the theft of valuable metals recently. Another is Caltrans, which he said has reported metal thefts at its Fontana traffic management center, as well as metal railings from highway bridges.
Miller said USFS officials first noticed its materials disappearing last fall, when about 1,000 fence posts were apparently stolen from a restoration project site in Cajon Pass. The steel wire to link the posts—intended to keep off-road vehicles out of an environmentally sensitive area — also vanished, he said, meaning at least 10,000 feet of wire was taken.
“Copper theft is a pervasive, opportunistic crime targeting transportation, communication and electricity networks,” according to a flyer the officials provided. “Since commodity prices for copper have more than doubled in the past two years the theft of copper from telephone lines, electrical substations, highway infrastructure and residential homes has grown exponentially.”
The sheet quotes the U.S. Department of Energy as estimating the annual value of stolen copper wire at nearly $1 billion. It also cites “a definitive link between stealing copper and illegal drug use, primarily methamphetamine.”
Poole cited AB 844, a California law enacted in 2008, that requires recycling centers that buy copper to check the seller’s ID, take a video or photo of the seller and the material sold and collect the seller’s thumb print.
“Cash is not allowed to be given instantly,” the flyer says. “The seller must come back three days later or have a check mailed to them.
A total of 70 people have been killed, and many more injured, while trying to steal copper, the document adds, including a 26-year-old man electrocuted while apparently trying to take copper from a utility pole in Fontana on April 16.
Miller said he is confident the wires will be replaced by Memorial Day weekend. “The camp will open on time even if the wiring is not replaced,” he said.
Poole said the electrical panel’s destruction involved “not just the RV hookups, but the infrastructure.” The vandalism affects lights in the campground’s restrooms as well as pumps for its water system. “It affects everything,” he said.
Miller said USFS investigators are probing the wire thefts but have not found physical evidence to help them identify the thieves.