As much as everyone uniformly dreads the meter maid, vandals were not responsible for a fire Friday morning in North Berkeley that reportedly destroyed a parking enforcement vehicle.
Flames from the conflagration were large enough to set a tree on fire, which would have threatened a nearby apartment building at Walnut and Cedar streets, authorities said.
Deputy Berkeley Fire Chief Avery Webb said a parking enforcement officer had been driving the vehicle up in the Berkeley Hills and was not far from Shattuck Avenue, at about 9:10 a.m., when she smelled smoke.
“The operator was driving the vehicle, smelled smoke and stopped,” he said. “When they opened the compartment in the back, it was on fire.”
The fire sent a thick cloud of black smoke billowing up into the sky.
When firefighters arrived, flames were covering most of the vehicle, and had reached a small maple tree overhead. Firefighters from a single engine were able to extinguish both fires, Webb said.
From the preliminary investigation, he said it appeared a mechanical problem caused the fire: either the tailpipe overheated and set a plastic cabinet above it on fire, or heat from the brakes may have been the culprit.
Webb said a final determination about cause had not yet been made, but that it was clear the engine had not been involved.
“When you drive a vehicle up there in the hills it’s pretty stressful on the vehicles,” he said. Though he noted that this was the first fire associated with a city parking enforcement vehicle that he knew of.
There were no injuries as a result of the fire, said Berkeley Police Sgt. Jennifer Louis, via email.
Update, 2:05 p.m. Berkeley Police Capt. Andrew Greenwood said all of the department’s parking enforcement vehicles, which are called GO-4s, will be taken to the city’s maintenance yard today, May 30.
Each vehicle will be unloaded completely and inspected to look for any potential signs of trouble.
“We have had no other fires like that in the past, for at least 10-plus years,” Greenwood said. “This was a highly unusual event for us. We want to understand what happened.”
He said the parking enforcement officer had gone into the Berkeley Hills, to Shasta Road, Friday morning to investigate an abandoned vehicle report, which Greenwood described as “not typical” for that area.
But whether traversing the steep, winding roads contributed to the vehicle fire remains under investigation. A mechanical element on the GO-4, such as the tailpipe or muffler, may have played a role if it overheated and caused items in the vehicle storage compartment to catch fire.
Greenwood said the GO-4’s storage compartment is used to carry everything from paperwork to flares, and other items that could be flammable.
“They carry a lot of stuff in that compartment,” he said.
He said authorities continue to investigate the cause of Friday’s fire, and will check with the vendor to find out whether this has happened before, or what changes should be made to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Putting loose papers into some kind of protected tub within the storage container, for example, could limit the risk, he added.
The replacement cost of a GO-4 vehicle is roughly $30,000 to $35,000, Greenwood said.
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