DENVER (CBS4)– There is growing concern over propane tanks in homeless encampments after an explosion caused an encampment in North Denver to go up in flames. The explosion and fire happened last weekend near York Street and the A Line RTD train route not far from Clayton Street.

(credit: Denver Fire)

Denver Public Safety says firefighters found more than 30 propane tanks at the site and investigators suspect the encampment was a front for a drug lab.

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Assistant Public Safety Director Armando Saldate says he routinely finds propane tanks at homeless encampments, “We’ve been to some encampments where our folks have called and said, ‘Hey we’re at an encampment and there are over 20 tanks here.’”

Denver Fire says it’s removed the equivalent of 475 gas grill-sized propane tanks and 40 pounds of marijuana from homeless encampments in the last four months alone. It says it’s also responded to nearly 200 fires in or near those camps.

(credit: Denver Fire)

But Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson says homeless encampments operate under a different set of rules than homes. A federal court ruling requires the city give 48 hours’ notice before a clearing a homeless encampment, even if public safety is at risk.

“Because of the federal order that we have to abide by, we are usually unable to even deal with these types of incidences right away,” says Robinson who signed an emergency order in the case of the fire to clear the camp immediately.

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The fire took out four power poles and, Saldate says, crews couldn’t reach them initially because of the camp.

“We had to get heavy equipment, I’m talking about big loaders, we had a van that burned to the ground that a regular backhoe couldn’t get out, so, we had to get heavy equipment back there. We couldn’t have people in encampments,” said Saldate.

Terese Howard, with Denver Homeless Outloud, which sued the city, doesn’t believe it. She says the city is using the fire as leverage for its court appeal.

(credit: CBS)

“They’re trying to make this look like a situation that necessitated immediate response in violation of a lawsuit settlement in order to take action in order to use this as a case to push their case in court,” said Howard.

The fire happened in Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s district. She has defended the encampments in the past. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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The city says it’s spent almost $2.3 million on outreach and sanctioned campsites since last year. That doesn’t include motel rooms, shelters, and sweeps.

Shaun Boyd