Eight to 10 tents caught fire Monday afternoon at an encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis where hundreds of homeless people have been living since late summer.
The blaze at Hiawatha Avenue and 26th Street was extinguished by firefighters using fire retardant, according to the Minneapolis Fire Department.
No serious injuries were reported from the flames and resulting smoke, but one person at the encampment was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. Flames from the blaze reached 4 feet high, according to inhabitants of the camp who were at the scene.
The fire is likely to increase pressure on city, county and American Indian officials to expedite efforts to relocate the tent encampment, which appeared this summer and has become the home of nearly 200 adults and children. A temporary shelter, planned for a nearby Red Lake Nation-owned site, is scheduled to open in mid-December.
With the sudden onset of winter weather last week, city officials had expressed concern that improvised heating equipment might cause fires or carbon monoxide poisoning at the camp.
“We found out today that these tents burn very quickly,” said Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel, who addressed the media from the encampment. “We are urging everyone to please, please take advantage of the shelter that’s been offered.”
Fruetel said fire crews found a number of propane canisters in the area destroyed by the fire but they were still investigating the cause of the blaze.
A view from above late Monday showed a checkerboard of tents in blue, green, gray and other shades — with several square feet of flattened space covered by white fire retardant. Water from fire hoses gushed down the sloping sidewalk that intersects the camp, as camp inhabitants watched. “It’s so sad to see this happening to our people,” Todd Weldon, 48, who is living at the camp, said as he watched the fire crews clean up the debris.
A video posted on Facebook showed the flames engulfing a handful of tents and captured the sound of at least one small explosion.
“Get out of there, get out of there,” one man’s voice was heard yelling off-camera at people near the smoke-belching orange flames, as sirens wailed.
Angela Senogles-Bowen, 55, who is living at the camp, said she was walking through the center of the camp when she spotted the flames and heard people yelling. She immediately ran to her tent and grabbed a fire extinguisher. Others rushed to the scene and began dumping bottles of water on the blaze. “Everyone pitched in,” she said.
In cooperation with the Red Lake Nation, the city plans to move the residents in early December to a nearby tribally owned site that would have warmer housing structures and sanitation facilities. The City Council last month approved $1.5 million for the move.
Mayor Jacob Frey’s spokesman, Mychal Vlatkovich, said late Monday afternoon that Frey has been in touch with the fire chief about the fire.
“Chief Fruetel has regularly visited with people living at the encampment to reinforce the importance of following proper fire safety protocols,” Vlatkovich said. “The safety of those at and near the encampment has been, and will continue to be, the mayor’s top priority.”
Weldon, one of the initial inhabitants of the camp, said he has been worried about a fire breaking out at the growing tent city since the frigid weather set in. Like many at the camp, he keeps a small heater fueled by propane inside his tent and turns it on for several hours each night. Many camp inhabitants have insulated their tents with layers of tarp and cardboard but still keep propane heaters and stoves inside their tents to stay warm, he said.
“There probably will be another fire because people are cold and people forget,” Weldon said. “They need to come up with a way to ‘winterize’ this camp before someone dies.”
Katherine “Kat” Yanez, who is also living at the camp, suggested that every tent at the encampment be equipped with a fire extinguisher. “We’re out here freezing, so it’s unrealistic to expect people to stop using these heaters,” she said. “Of course, the best solution would be to get every one out here a home.”
Since August, city, county and American Indian officials have treated the camp as a public health emergency and have marshaled teams of medical workers and social workers to care for the residents and sign them up for housing.
Drug overdoses have been another concern at the camp, where four deaths have been reported. The most recent occurred on Nov. 1, when a 23-year-old woman died from an apparent overdose.
The leaders of Red Lake Nation, whose members represent about one-quarter of the camp population, have launched an aggressive effort to recruit willing landlords and remove barriers such as rules that bar people with prior evictions or criminal records.
In St. Paul, a smaller encampment with about 30 residents had taken root at the base of Cathedral Hill. Last week city officials cleared the camp and moved residents to other sites. Officials cited safety concerns, including the dangers created by fires and a recent case of carbon monoxide poisoning.