Copper wire thieves endanger drivers in Southwest Washington

The Washington State Department of Transportation says copper thieves disrupted street light and camera systems on Dec. 30 and Jan. 23 in the Vancouver area. (KATU file image)

Thieves are putting your safety at risk by stealing copper wire from equipment on state roads in Southwest Washington.

The most recent thefts were first reported by the Columbian.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) told KATU copper wire thefts cost the state about $1 million over the past two years and $70 thousand in Southwest Washington alone.

You may not notice them, but when you're driving on state roads in Washington, critical equipment above helps keep you safe.

"There's the lights, there's traffic cameras so we can see if there's an incident," said Bart Treece, WSDOT spokesman. "We can help first responders get there."

Treece said the cameras are also available to drivers so they can plan their routes and see if there's any trouble to avoid.

"We depend on those types of tools and so do drivers," Treece said.

But on Dec. 30 and again on Jan. 23, Treece said thieves -- putting their own lives at risk -- ripped off copper wire from equipment in the Vancouver area.

"It knocked out some of our highway lighting system," Treece explained, "and some of our cameras."

Treece said in one location the state spent about $4,000 on repairs. The price tag for the other is still being estimated.

"That takes time and it takes money and those are things that come out of our maintenance budget," said Treece. "And I think we can all appreciate what highway maintenance does for people. We patch potholes. We fix guardrail."

Treece said the maintenance budget is already stretched extra thin in winter months.

To help keep the thefts from happening, he recommends drivers watch out for and report any unusual activity.

"If you're driving on the highways and you see somebody on the side of the road and they don't have a high-visibility jacket, they don't have amber lights, they might need help," said Treece. "And so calling 911 is a good thing. But if they're up to no good calling 911's also a good thing because the cops can go there and ask a few questions."

Washington State Patrol is investigating these thefts. So far there are no reports of any arrests.

Oregon's Department of Transportation (ODOT) says copper wire thefts are not a problem for their agency.

"ODOT has had no reports statewide of thefts like you describe," Don Hamilton, spokesman for ODOT, told KATU via email. "I know this was an issue in years past but there has been nothing in recent years."

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