The high price of gasoline and a rocky economy may be behind increased incidents of gas siphoning at Inland Empire homes and businesses, authorities said Wednesday.
They said gas has been siphoned in recent months from parked cars, trucks and boats in the area.
Truck rental companies with lots where vehicles are left unattended overnight, including U-Haul, Penske and Ryder, are especially vulnerable, authorities said.
"If they leave a vehicle on the lot with any amount of fuel in it, it's susceptible to being siphoned," Cathedral City Fire Chief Mike Hatfield said. "With gas prices going up, the economy being what it is with the mortgage crisis, the conditions are ripe for that."
An explosion Tuesday at a Cathedral City U-Haul lot probably was caused by gas siphoners, who have targeted the lot several times this year, Hatfield said.
The explosion, reported about 1 p.m., caused $120,000 in damage, destroying four trucks and charring a nearby storage facility, Hatfield said.
Firefighters inspecting the lot found what Hatfield called the "telltale signs of gas siphoning": short, cut-off garden hoses stuck in the gas tanks of three trucks, and the gas caps removed from six other trucks. All of the trucks had been emptied of gas.
Siphoners stick one end of the hose in a gas tank, then suck on the other end "like a straw" until the gas rises, Hatfield said.
"It looks like somebody had siphoned some fuel, got what they wanted, left the hose lying there and the gas just continued to siphon," onto the ground, Hatfield said.
Fire officials have yet to determine exactly what ignited the explosion, but those responsible probably suffered severe burns, he said.
No arrests have been made in connection with the explosion. But investigators have alerted local hospitals to be on the lookout for suspicious burn victims.
Authorities say gas-siphoning thieves do not shy away from vehicles parked close to houses or businesses.
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said siphoning had become "fairly common." The Sheriff's Department recommends that businesses and drivers purchase gas-cap locks, secure their parking lots and driveways, and install bright lights to deter siphoners.
"Locking gas caps are a very big deterrent, and they're not terribly expensive," she said.
Josh Odell manages a Penske truck rental store in Yucca Valley, with between five and 15 trucks parked in a fenced and locked lot. Odell has reported several cases of siphoning during the last year, ranging from 15 to 33 gallons at a time.
After he requested added sheriff's patrols, an officer caught a siphoner in the act, crouched under a truck with a gas can beside him, Odell said.
"The higher the fuel price goes up, the more people steal it," Odell said. "You come in in the morning and go to run a truck out to a customer, and the fuel tank will be empty."
Los Angeles police have received 95 reports of gas theft, mostly siphoning from commercial and private car lots, since the beginning of the calendar year, but officials could not say whether that was more than in past years, said Officer Sam Park.
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's spokesman said Wednesday that deputies had not seen a rise in siphoning reports in recent months.