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Denver Safety executive director takes heat for decision to move homeless following propane fire

Executive Directory Murphy Robinson: It was a safety issue
propane fire denver homeless.jpeg
Posted at 7:10 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 21:10:30-04

DENVER — A weekend fire at a Denver homeless camp is reigniting the debate around how to handle the homeless crisis on the Front Range.

Advocates of people who are homeless say Denver should have followed a federal court imposed injunction ordering Denver to provide a 7-day notice before most homeless encampment sweeps.

But Murphy Robinson, the executive director of Denver's Department of Public Safety, says he was well within the order because of imminent safety concerns.

The propane-fueled fire began in a homeless camp in an industrial area near the A Line just east of East 41st Avenue and Josephine Street.

Charred debis

Residents who are homeless say the fire started in an unoccupied camper trailer and was fueled by several 20 pound propane tanks.

The fire spread perilously close to a lot full of industrial size propane tanks.

Industrial propane tanks

"It was a propane storage area where a propane company stored tons of propane, and when I say tons, I mean literally tons of propane," Robinson said, "which would have taken out multiple city blocks."

Murphy said the fire was so intense it burned four power polls, knocking out power to 1,000-2,000 Denver residents.

"I had just gotten off work and my cousin says the power's out, the power's out," a neighbor, Eric Darven Martinez, said.

He said it's not the first fire that's happened there. Martinez captured video of an RV fire a few weeks prior. He said a homeless person had been living in the RV.

"We don't mind them being around," he said. "Just respect the people that live around you, you know?"

Luis Carrasco, an auto recycler, said it was just a matter of time before something like this happened.

"Every day they were starting fires," he said, referring to the residents who are homeless. "We called firefighters. We called the city. We called police. They came out here and never did anything about it."

Carrasco said the Saturday blaze burned past the fence and into his auto recycling yard, torching two cars. One of them was a Chevy Camaro that he wanted to rebuild.

Charred Camaro

"I wanted to fix it up," he said with a chuckle. "Save it from going to the junk yard."

He said that's now where the Camaro and a nearby truck, which was also burned, will be headed.

Tent resident Sierra Jade was among those told by the city to move.

"They told us we had 15 minutes to gather whatever we needed," she said.

The city posted a public safety notice stating some of the propane tanks were being used to extract hash oil from marijuana plants. The notice said all items needed to be removed from the area.

Denver Fire officials say the exact cause of the fire is undetermined.

A homeless advocacy group, Denver Homeless Outloud, posted a response to the sweep on its Facebook page.

"First off, let's be clear," the post says. "The City is using this fire as a way to persuade you to believe that they should be able to sweep an encampment of residents with no notice."

Outloud organizer Terese Howard said instead of responding responsibly to the fire and supporting residents in their safety, the city forcibly evicted everyone.

"The city is capable and should respond to those fires as they would any situation involving fire at any apartment complex," Howard said.

Robinson said the city had to move expeditiously because of the power outage affecting nearby residents and because of the danger to the nearby propane storage facility.

"We're fortunate nobody lost their lives," he said.

Jade told Denver7 that if the area was that unsafe, the city should have moved them out long before the fire.

"I just want to find some common ground because it's really hard for me to get out of this cycle if I have to replace everything every month, or every other month," she said. "It sucks because I have to replace my wardrobe and other belongings, and it takes time to do that with no money."