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Cigarette-smoking gas thieves send U-Haul lot up in flames, California cops say

Screengrab from KTVU video

Authorities have a tip for would-be gas thieves following a fire early Wednesday at a California U-Haul lot — next time, maybe try leaving the cigarettes at home.

“Not the smartest thing to do, and these criminals need to learn, you can’t be lighting cigarettes when committing these types of crimes,” said Sgt. Spencer Crum of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, KTVU reported.

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The blaze broke out at 1:30 a.m. at U‑Haul Moving & Storage in Santa Rosa, destroying two vehicles and damaging five others, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

“There was quite a bit of siphoning of multiple trucks going on, multiple gas cans,” said Lt. Fred Leuenberger of the Sonoma County Fire District, according to the publication. “Another vehicle still had a tube inserted into the gas tank. There were multiple funnels and large metal containers up and down the aisles of the rental vehicles.”

Deputies also found a pocket knife and lighter left by the would-be thieves, who may have fled in two vehicles, KTVU reported. They think at least one of the culprits may have been burned in the fire.

Neighbors had reported a possible explosion and fire at the lot, according to The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Damage to the U-Haul lot tops $100,000, and the thieves face potential charges of grand theft and arson, according to KTVU.

On Tuesday night, a separate fire caused $500,000 damage to the Notre Vue Estate & Winery in nearby Windsor, KPIX reported.

Sonoma County firefighters suspect rags, brushes and rollers used for wood staining as the cause of that blaze, which heavily damaged a tasting room, according to the station.

The fire also caused up to $2 million in smoke damage to wine barrels and bottles, KPIX reported.

Cars can catch fire for many reasons. Mechanical or electrical issues are the most common cause. A car can also catch fire as the result of a bad crash. If you see smoke or flames or smell burning rubber or plastic, respond immediately.

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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.