It is not the most pleasant of sights in Lodi. Waist-high yellow and brown weeds stretch for blocks between the railroad tracks and back fences of South Sacramento Street homes.
A faint whiff of wildfire smoke lingers in the air from far-off fires, serving as a reminder of parched California's fire danger. One spark - whether from a passing train, a trouble-making youth or sunlight hitting a piece of shiny garbage the right way - could start a fire that would quickly burn through the dry weeds.
It is a danger that has worried residents for decades, and the Lodi Fire Department has had enough.
Last week, fire officials began posting notices on railroad tracks near Holly Drive, and they have sent a letter to Union Pacific Railroad, ordering the rail company to clean up the weeds by Sacramento Street. If they do not, the city will do it and then bill the railroad, Fire Chief Michael Pretz said Thursday.
"That would be a lot better than us having to fight a fire to save our houses," said longtime South Sacramento Street resident Mary Olvera.
Her house was built in 1954, and her father and a neighbor spent many years fighting the city and railroad in an attempt to get the weeds cleaned up. Her father died a dozen years ago, but the problem did not go away.
Some summers saw Olvera and her family wetting down their roof for fear that the latest grassfire would throw embers into the air. Other times they fought back with garden hoses until firefighters extinguished the blazes.
It took an April 2004 fire, which burned 400 feet of residential fences, to make a change, Olvera said.
"After that we noticed that the field was being tilled on a regular basis, but nothing's been done recently," she said.
Who to contactAnyone who sees suspicious activity, such as dumping or loitering, near a Union Pacific railroad track may call the company's toll-free emergency number at (888) 877-7267. The company works with local law enforcement and can try to combat the dumping before it gets out of hand, spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said.
Property along the railroad tracks is not the only place in Lodi where weeds are growing. Some lots on Cherokee Lane were recently discussed by the Lodi Improvement Committee, member Sunil Yadav said, and he encouraged residents to attend the meetings to voice concerns. The committee's next meeting is Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St.
- News-Sentinel staff
A Union Pacific spokeswoman said the rail company tries to maintain its 33,000 miles of tracks, and that includes property on either side of the actual rail lines.
"If it's our property, it's our responsibility to keep it clean and neat and to comply with local ordinances," spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said.
A number of Union Pacific officials were out of the office Thursday afternoon, the day before the Independence Day holiday, so Richmond could not confirm that the company had received Lodi's letter. She also did not know when the weeds in Lodi will be cleared.
"If it's not cleaned up by the time it's supposed to be, we will pay the fire department for it, but we'd rather do it ourselves," she said.
Under Lodi's municipal code, fire officials can order that weeds be cut back and trash be removed if they pose fire hazards. Once notice is given and signs are posted, the property owner has 14 days to clean up the problem, or 10 days to request a hearing in front of the City Council.
In most cases, signs aren't even necessary because the owners clean up the problem, Pretz said.
"The difficulty we seem to be having is that the railroads are less responsive to weeds than homeowners and property owners," he said.
The Union Pacific tracks that run north and south through town near Sacramento Street are certainly an example of weeds given complete freedom. They average about three to four feet tall, but some stretch to about six feet.
Residents could hop over their back fences and cut the weeds by hand, but that is actually illegal because it would involve trespassing on private railroad-owned property.
"It would be a lot safer for everyone involved if the city just rototilled it and just sent the bill to the bloody railroad," Olvera said.
Central California Traction Company, which owns the rail lines east of Highway 99, mows and sprays about twice a year or as needed, said General Manager Dave Buccolo. Chemicals kill hearty thistles, and then once the grass is mowed after the spring moisture, the weeds don't generally grow back until the next year, he said. His company owns 47 miles of tracks, which he noted is significantly less than Union Pacific's responsibility.
Another problem for rail companies is the trash that collects among the weeds. Just one small area in Lodi held a crippled stroller and countless other bits of trash on Thursday.
Buccolo said he recently had to get rid of an entire bedroom set that someone had apparently decided to dump, rather than pay a minimal fee to take it to the San Joaquin County dump.