Gasoline thieves accidentally blow up vehicles

Some thieves in Santa Rosa learned the hard way: gasoline and smoking don't mix.

They accidentally blew up a few U-Haul trucks while stealing fuel from the gas tanks.

Now, authorities are searching for the suspects and assume at least one of them suffered burns.

"Fuel theft is a very dangerous operation, so we likely have somebody out there who has been injured," said Cyndi Foreman, of the Sonoma County Fire District, which responded to the blaze.

It happened at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at the rental yard on Santa Rosa Avenue.

The explosion was heard by neighborhood residents and passing motorists.

The call came in as a vehicle fire, but it turned out to be much more.

"The evidence shows they were siphoning gas, and someone lit a cigarette and blew this place up," said Sgt. Spencer Crum, of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

"Blew it up pretty good, about six vans got blown up and mostly totaled out here."

Wednesday afternoon, a few damaged vans remained parked in the lot, their front grills, headlamps, and trims melted away.

A pick-up truck destroyed in the blast, and a few other vehicles that burned, had already been towed away.

"It's really the vapors that are dangerous," cautioned Foreman, who noted plenty of evidence was abandoned by the thieves: two 55 gallon drums being siphoned into, plus tubing and funnels, and a smaller jug already filled.

Authorities also found a pocket knife and a lighter.

"We're working with the stuff left behind, doing some evidence work with that, seeing if we can prove who it was," said Sgt. Crum.

Two cars were spotted leaving the U-Haul lot afterward.

"We did a sweep of the area last night, and another sweep this morning, and we have not found anyone, but quite likely someone is Injured from this incident," said Foreman, "so we are checking local hospitals too."

It's not the first time gasoline has been stolen from the U-Haul fleet.

Rentals are returned with full tanks, which make them attractive targets.

Plus, there is no guard, no fencing, no locking gas caps.

Gas theft is a crime that seems to rise and fall, according to what's happening at the pumps.

"Look at gas prices right now here in California, upwards of four dollars a gallon, and we see this activity spike when we have increases in fuel costs," said Foreman.

Santa Rosa Avenue is blanketed by security cameras, and has traffic flowing at all hours, so investigators are getting good leads.

They encourage the suspects to come forward, especially if someone is injured and needs medical care.

"Not the smartest thing to do," observed Sgt. Crum, "and these criminals need to learn, you can't be lighting cigarettes when committing these types of crimes."

The loss exceeds $100,000 and the thieves would be looking at charges of grand theft and arson, both felony crimes.