HESPERIA (CBS/AP) — New details emerged Monday about alleged sky-high towing fees facing some drivers who had to ditch their cars before a wildfire swept across Interstate 15 and torched 20 vehicles.
The California Highway Patrol reopened both directions of the 15 Freeway on Saturday, a day after the fast-moving wildfire jumped the freeway in the Cajon Pass, sending motorists running for their lives.
The fire ignited next to the freeway Friday afternoon. Fanned by 40 mph winds, it raced uphill and onto the traffic-clogged freeway, trapping hundreds of people who were stuck on the road.
The blaze destroyed 20 vehicles and damaged another 10 cars. Only two people were injured in the firestorm.
But some car owners were charged $1,000 to get their vehicle released from impound, while one person was hit with a $2,500 bill.
Gloria Chairez, who runs AZX Auto Transport in Arizona, told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO her company was helping clear cars on the 15 Freeway in what the CHP insisted was to be a volunteer operation.
“We were called up there for volunteer work, and these tow truck companies decided they were going to cash in on what was happening to these people,” Chairez said.
Kent Patterson was among those stranded on the 15 Freeway, the main route linking Southern California and Las Vegas.
His rental car was towed by G&M Towing & Recovery in Hesperia. He still hasn’t learned if it was burned or not, but says the company billed him more than $600 to tow the vehicle.
“Everybody just decided to leave because it was really coming fast,” Patterson said. “Six hundred and eighteen dollars. I thought that was outrageous.”
In a situation like this, CBS2/KCAL9’s Greg Mills reports everything comes back to the CHP.
The agency is ultimately in charge of the whole operation and has contacts with tow companies called TSAs, or Tow Service Agreements.
“They cannot charge whatever they want. We put a cap on how much they can charge,” a CHP spokesperson said.
The owner of G&M declined to go on camera but told CBS2/KCAL9 they charge $220 per hour. Moving cars from the 15 Freeway took a team of drivers about two-and-a-half hours, he said.
The owner added he felt justified in making the charges and said that Patterson’s rental company should pick up the tab.
Patterson said he did not have insurance on the rental.
Since Friday, tow companies licensed with CHP have taken a beating over the fees.
Richard Monroy manages with Gonzalez Tow, a small company with five drivers. He said after receiving multiple threatening calls and complaints the company waved all fees for those caught in the fire.
“We’re actually trying to help these people, not take advantage of them,” he said.
A CHP spokesperson says the agency has contacted the companies that work for them to remind them of the caps on the charges due to the TSAs. They say the companies are complying.
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