DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Fire Department is raising the alarm over a growing number of propane explosions in homeless camps.
It is said to have responded to more than 200 fires in or near homeless camps in the past four months alone – an average of more than one a day – and propane tanks can be found in almost every camp. A 20 pound tank of the flammable gas is equivalent to 100 sticks of dynamite.
Firefighters say many camps – in populated areas, along busy streets, and under bridges – have multiple propane tanks. It’s a dangerous mix that sparked a close conversation in northeast Denver last month. Explosions rocked the area after 500 pounds of propane erupted in a homeless camp.
“We realize that there is a stark and very dangerous reality that we face every day. That’s an abundance of propane that we find in these unstaged camps, ”said Captain Greg Pixley of Denver Fire.
He says the abundance of fires in and around these camps created a potentially deadly combination: “Think about how many people are in these camps, in close proximity to each other. And then add flammable materials, and additionally add propane. It’s a recipe for disaster. There is no way a sane person could look at this and say it is a safe environment. ”
A man was burned over 45% of his body last week after a propane tank caught fire in an abandoned RV, another fire nearly spread to a nearby apartment complex, and a propane explosion in a warehouse under Federal Street damaged the bridge and had one can cause breakdown.
“It’s a problem, I think,” said Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. She says outreach workers encourage campers to keep propane outside of their tents, but she says it isn’t a reason to break down camp.
“We need to provide more services in these areas, more education and more support in the appropriate use of heating sources.”
Denver Fire says it does public relations. Fire inspector Mark Rudolph visits camps every week and warns of the danger associated with propane. CBS4 followed him for a day.
“I received a report that there was a lot of propane in here, so I just checked,” he told a couple in a warehouse. They had a 20 pound tank in their tent that they used for a cooking stove and another 1 pound tank that they used for a heater.
“You have an open flame in here and if you leak and smoke you will be killed in here.”
Not everyone uses the gas to cook food or to stay warm. Rudolph says some use it to make meth and hash oil. He showed us the remains of a drug laboratory in a homeless camp.
“This is a butane hash oil extractor,” he said.
A suspected drug lab in a north Denver homeless camp caused a propane explosion last month that could have been disastrous. The warehouse was located next to a propane warehouse. Firefighters found more than 30 20-pound propane tanks.
“When they explode, not only do they create a fireball, but splinters can appear anywhere,” said Pixley. “It could be disastrous. There would be life if there were people there. ”
It’s not just those who stay in the vulnerable camps, but also firefighters and anyone who runs, drives, or works nearby.
“The city and county of Denver were very lucky not to die,” said Pixley.
In many cases, the people in the camps are stealing the propane, but according to Pixley, some of it is also being donated by well-meaning people who don’t understand the risks. This is one reason the city is appealing a court ruling preventing crews from clearing a camp without giving 48 hours notice if they suspect a dangerous situation.