Thieves are stealing L.A. County fire hydrants by the hundreds. Utility is now trying to outsmart them

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA June 4, 2024- A fire hydrant at 82 St. and Hooper Ave. in Los Angeles was a target of a theft recently. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
A fire hydrant, with a locking device that prevents access to the bolts, at 82 Street and Hooper Avenue in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

In parts of Los Angeles County, fire hydrants have become a hot item.

Thieves have stolen at least 302 hydrants since the start of 2023 in several areas of the county, according to Golden State Water Co.

Many of the thefts have occurred in the communities of Florence-Graham, Willowbrook and West Rancho Dominguez, as well as eastern Gardena near the 110 Freeway.

Sometimes, thieves have unscrewed bolts to remove hydrants. Other times, they've used a vehicle to knock the hydrant loose.

Those targeting the hydrants have often used a shutoff valve before dislodging them. But on several occasions, they’ve left water gushing.

Law enforcement officials and managers of Golden State Water Co. say they believe the hydrants are being taken to recycling centers and sold for scrap metal. The brass in the hydrants is especially in demand.

“We're really alarmed about this happening,” said Kate Nutting, general manager of the water company’s southwest district. “It is a big public safety issue.”

There has been a recent rise in the thefts. The utility company, which owns the water infrastructure in the area, started seeing hydrants vanish in late 2022 in parts of L.A. County.

“The first half of 2024, it's just really ramped up," Nutting said, "which is why we've been taking even more aggressive measures to try to stop it.”

Read more: In one of L.A.'s largest cash heists ever, burglars steal as much as $30 million from vault

The measures the company has taken include welding hydrants to block access to the bolts, Nutting said.

But thieves have continued, with methods including ramming hydrants with vehicles or using specialized tools to remove metal parts.

“In some cases, they are very persistent in getting those parts out,” Nutting said.

Crews also have been installing locked steel covers over bolts so they cannot be unscrewed.

Golden State Water, a publicly traded utility, said the thefts have amounted to more than $1.2 million in losses — costs that are ultimately borne by customers.

The company has sent letters to law enforcement agencies underlining the seriousness of the crimes, as well as to dozens of metal recyclers, urging them to report any stolen property. The company noted that tampering with fire hydrants is a federal offense.

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 85 fire hydrants have been reported stolen this year in unincorporated parts of the county, as well as 14 hydrants in the city of Lynwood.

Deputies from the agency’s Century station patrol in the area and are investigating.

“These incidents significantly threaten public safety and disrupt essential emergency services,” the Sheriff’s Department said in an email. “Our investigators are working diligently to identify and apprehend those responsible for the thefts.”

The L.A. County Fire Department said the thefts pose a threat to public safety.

“Fire hydrants are crucial in providing a reliable water source for firefighting operations, and their absence can hamper rescue efforts and lead to delays extinguishing fires,” the department said in an email.

Experts agree that small delays in fighting fires can be pivotal. Venkatesh Kodur, a professor and director of Michigan State University’s Center on Structural Fire Engineering and Diagnostics, said the best opportunity to knock down a blaze, particularly a house fire, is within the first five to 10 minutes, when damage is still minimal.

Typically after 15 minutes, he said, “the damage and the fire grows almost exponentially ... and every second is important.”

Kodur said if the work of fighting a fire is hindered by a missing hydrant, the flames can spread more easily.

And although the thieves may be lured by the payday, Kodur said, the fact is that brass, copper and steel don’t fetch very much money.

“These are people selling these metals to scrap dealers for peanuts,” Kodur said. “Communities are being put at risk.”

The Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department urged people to notify law enforcement with any information about the thefts. Officials said residents may call the Century sheriff’s station at (323) 568-4935 or provide anonymous tips through Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.

In parts of L.A. County, residents have been reporting seeing the bare metal bases of hydrants protruding from sidewalks.

Golden State Water urged customers to contact the company if they notice a hydrant is missing. The company’s customer service center can be reached at (800) 999-4033.

“It's critical for us to replace them as quickly as possible,” Nutting said. “The public safety aspect of it is our biggest concern.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.