A day after a series of small fires scorched weed-infested embankments along Highway 41 through central Fresno, City Councilman Clint Olivier said the state’s transportation department is planning a major cleanup of unsightly dry grass and brush that can fuel those blazes.
Standing across a chain-link fence from where one fire burned along the freeway at Terrace Avenue, less than two blocks from his home, Olivier described seeing smoke billow from the freeway roadside as he drove home from City Hall. He said he helped neighbors on Harvard Avenue protect their homes, climbing on a ladder leaning on the fence to spray from a garden hose on the fire.
And he chastised Caltrans for allowing the grass and weeds to build up along the freeway.
There were a lot of fires along the 41 (Thursday), and they had a lot of fuel because there was a lot of grass, knee-high, dry grass and weeds.
Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier
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“There were a lot of fires along the 41 yesterday, and they had a lot of fuel because there was a lot of grass, knee-high, dry grass and weeds,” Olivier said. “Fire could spread down those embankments and burn the houses along the highway. … Caltrans should take care of their freeways and take care of their weeds.”
But Olivier also praised Caltrans for stepping up in a meeting with city officials Thursday – as city firefighters were busy dousing the flames – with a commitment to quickly clean up its right of way along highways’ urban corridors in Fresno “within the next 30 to 45 days.”
City Manager Bruce Rudd said his meeting with Caltrans was scheduled after Fresno Fire Department Chief Kerri Donis expressed concern about the weed problems after a series of similar roadside fires along highways 99 and 180 on the evening of July 20.
Caltrans spokesman Cory Burkarth said drivers along Highway 41 should start seeing more landscape maintenance crews mowing grass and cutting weeds along the freeway within days.
“Beginning next week, we’re putting an emphasis on Highway 41 in the Fresno area and bringing in additional Caltrans maintenance crews to assist us in Fresno as we work on landscape maintenance,” Burkarth said Friday. “We’re also going to bring in additional mowing machines and working with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to focus their (parolee) crews working on 41.” In areas that are too steep for mowers, crews will use hand tools and motorized weed cutters to bring the grass and weeds under control.
Beginning next week, we’re putting an emphasis on Highway 41 in the Fresno area and bringing in additional Caltrans (landscape) maintenance crews to assist us.
Caltrans spokesman Cory Burkarth
Once Highway 41 is in better shape, crews will focus their attention on highways 99 and 180. For the most part, Burkarth added, Highway 168 through Fresno is in good condition. Burkarth confirmed that Caltrans expects to have the work done in 30 to 45 days, if not sooner. “This is a high priority for us,” he said, adding that some work could be interrupted if crews are needed for emergency road or guardrail repairs, because “our top priority is the safety of the roadway.”
Burkarth said several factors contributed to the buildup of weeds this summer. May rains provided enough moisture to give grass and weeds a growth spurt after Caltrans crews had already mowed along the highways, he said. Additionally, attrition from the agency’s dedicated landscape maintenance crews and budget cuts reduced the amount of work that could be done. Since 2011, Caltrans has spent an average of about $2,300 per acre of right of way each year for landscape work in the Fresno area. But in the 2015-16 budget year, that figure was trimmed to about $1,650 per acre.
Caltrans has about 900 acres of right of way in the Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area, not including highway medians. Each of the 17 staff members in the Fresno area landscape maintenance crews is responsible for about 53 acres.
Rudd said Caltrans representatives told him that some of the local budget for landscape maintenance had to be transferred to replace irrigation and lighting systems that were crippled by metal thieves who stole copper wire from the fixtures.