Wire thefts leave parts of Tacoma without street lights

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by HEATHER GRAF / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @HeatherGrafK5

KING5.com

Posted on January 10, 2014 at 12:34 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 10 at 1:11 PM

TACOMA - City officials in Tacoma say a rash of wire thefts is the reason large sections of the city are now in the dark. The street lights won't come on as a result, and it's happening so often, repair crews can't keep up.

North L Street in the North Slope neighborhood is one of many streets that have been impacted.

"I called the city on this one and they said it's probably going to be two months before they even get to this street, because the rest of the city has been hit so hard," said resident Mike Pawul.

KING 5 caught up with him while he was walking his dog. It's a daily task his wife used to do, but now refuses because the street is so dark and she feels unsafe.

A few houses down, Heather and Alex Straub are dealing with the same problem. They say they've always felt safe in their neighborhood until now.

"It's extremely dark, it actually feels dangerous," said Heather. "You can't see more than a few feet ahead, so someone could be right on top of you before you know it's a neighbor or perhaps a criminal."

Public Works Director Curtis Kingsolver say the number of wire thefts have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

"For the first ten months of last year we had about ten outages from wire theft," he said. "The last two months, we've had 56."

In each case, he says thieves are targeting the copper wire, kept inside junction boxes throughout the city, that connect each street lamp to the system.

"They're underground, but the wires are spliced together in those boxes, so if you get inside a box, you can pull the wires out," he said.

The city has tried burying the boxes, specialized locks, and even welding them shut. No matter what city workers try, every few days, another neighborhood goes dark.

"They're doing a lot of work, to be able to take this copper wire," said Kingsolver. "The people who are doing this have just taken a sledge hammer to those boxes at times."

He says crews are repairing about one outage a week, but at the current rate, some neighbors could be waiting months for the street lights to come back on.

Some families in the Straub's neighborhood are coming up with their own solutions.

"We've noticed people are keeping their Christmas lights up extra long, we joked maybe we should put our lights back up," said Heather.

For now, Kingsolver says the city needs the public's help. If you see someone in your neighborhood who looks suspicious, or someone who is tampering with a junction box and does not appear to be with the city or the utility company, call police right away.

Most of the time, the real repairmen will be driving a vehicle with a city logo on it.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this crime spree is that, since the copper wires are electrified at night when the street lamps are on, the thefts are more than likely taking place during the day.

Kingsolver believes the thieves come in, force their way inside the junction boxes, and cut the wires during the day. Then, they return at night to retrieve the wire.  Kingsolver also says he's talked to officials in cities all over the country who are dealing with the same issue.

"This is not a Tacoma problem, this is really a nationwide problem," he said.

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