The dispatch went out at 6:12 in the morning on October 28, and the Denver Fire Department took up the call. It only took four firefighters a matter of minutes to arrive in front of the Samaritan House homeless shelter on Lawrence Street and Broadway, where 200-plus people experiencing homelessness had built a tent city.
On the sidewalk between tents, the firefighters spotted a heap of smoldering tarps, blankets and clothing; it looked as though someone had already used an extinguisher to knock down most of the blaze. The crew completed the extinguishment and left at 6:25 a.m. to answer other calls.
The fire on October 28 was the third that had occurred in the homeless encampment in less than two weeks. The next day, October 29, the city conducted its largest homeless sweep since late 2017, dismantling the homeless encampment that had been there for months.
Denver Police Department Sargeant Brian Conover told us at the time that the sweep was occurring because Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment had deemed the area unsafe and unsanitary. “You should have seen the feces and rats around here,” Conover said, with no mention of the fires or propane tanks.
Critics, such as Denver Homeless Out Loud, immediately pounced on the sweep as yet another example of aggressive overreach by the city, especially as Denver is defending itself in a federal class-action lawsuit in which plaintiffs allege that such sweeps are unconstitutional (that trial is scheduled to begin in March).
But new information about regular fires in the encampment and a number of allegedly stolen propane tanks discovered in tents there raise legitimate safety concerns. Westword recently heard about the propane tanks — which were allegedly taken from nearby neighbors — and the fires from a Ballpark resident who asked to remain anonymous. But the resident did provide this photo:
According to Denver Fire Department records, the first blaze occurred at 7:55 p.m. on October 15, when a tent caught on fire (no one was injured). The second fire, according to DFD spokesman Greg Pixley, was intentional: On October 25, an argument broke out among campers and a woman lit another person’s tent on fire; the incident is listed in DFD’s records as arson.
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Albus Brooks, who is the Denver City Council representative for the Ballpark neighborhood, says that he was aware of the fires and the propane tanks before the sweep.
“The fire department went in and noticed all of these tanks and that something could happen, like an explosion that could kill people," Brooks says. “That was one of the main determinants."
Since the sweep, Brooks says he hasn’t heard of any more propane tanks going missing from residents in the area. Denver Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson says that there was no investigation made into how the propane tanks were obtained.
"There was probably always going to be a move from the mayor's office to clean up the area," Brooks says, "but I think that was the first time we've seen that level of risk."