DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Fire Department is sounding an alarm over a growing number of propane explosions at homeless encampments.

It says it has responded to more than 200 fires in or near homeless encampments in the last four months alone — more than one a day on average — and in almost every camp they find propane tanks. A 20 pound tank of the highly flammable gas is the equivalent of 100 sticks of dynamite.

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Firefighters say many camps — in populated areas, along busy streets, and under bridges — have several tanks of propane. It’s a dangerous mix that led to a close call in northeast Denver last month. Explosions rocked the area after 500 pounds of propane erupted in a tractor trailer-turned-homeless encampment.

“We are finding there is a stark and a very dangerous reality that we are facing every day. That’s an abundance of propane gas we’re finding in these unhoused encampments,” said Capt. Greg Pixley with Denver Fire.

He says the abundance of fires in and around those camps has creates a potentially deadly combination: “Think about how many people are in these camps, the close proximity to one another. And then add combustible materials and then add propane on top of that. It’s a recipe for disaster. There’s no way a rational individual could look at that and say it’s a safe environment.”  

A man was burned over 45% of his body last week after a propane tank in an abandoned camper caught fire, another fire almost spread to a nearby apartment complex and a propane explosion at a camp under Federal Street damaged the bridge and could have caused a collapse.

“It is a concern, I think,” said Cathy Alderman with Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. She says outreach workers courage campers to keep propane outside of their tents but, she says, it’s not a reason to dismantle encampments.

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“We need to be providing more services to those areas, more education, more assistance with the appropriate use of heating sources.”

Denver Fire says it is doing outreach. Fire Inspector Mark Rudolph visits encampments every week and warns of the danger associated with propane. CBS4 followed him for a day.

“I got a report that there was a lot of propane here so I was just kind of checking back,” he told a couple in one encampment. They had a 20 pound tank in their tent that they were using for a cooking stove and another 1 pound tank that they were using for a heater.

“You got an open flame inside of here and if you have a leak and you’re smoking, you guys are going to get killed in here.”

Not everyone is using the gas to cook food or stay warm. Rudolph says some are using it to make meth and hash oil. He showed us the remains of one drug lab at a homeless encampment.

“This is butane hash oil extraction device,” he said.

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A suspected drug lab at a homeless encampment in north Denver caused a propane explosion last month that could have been disastrous. The camp was next door to a propane storage facility. Firefighters found more than 30 20-pound propane tanks.

“When they explode not only does it create a fireball but it could also send shrapnel all around,” said Pixley. “It could be catastrophic. There would be loss of life if people are around there.”

It’s not just those staying in the camps at risk, he says, but firefighters and anyone who happens to be walking, driving, or working nearby.

“The City and County of Denver has been very lucky that we have not had a loss of life,” Pixley said.

In many cases, the people living in the encampments are stealing the propane but, Pixley says, some of it is also donated by well-meaning people who don’t understand the risks. It’s one reason the city is appealing a court ruling that prevents crews from clearing out a camp without giving 48 hours’ notice when they suspect a dangerous situation.

Shaun Boyd