Several propane tanks exploded during a large fire early Friday at a homeless encampment in downtown St. Paul.

Seven tents were damaged in the blaze that broke out about 2 a.m. in Kellogg Park on the south end of downtown, said St. Paul Fire Department Deputy Chief Roy Mokosso.

About 30 firefighters from five stations spent about an hour putting out the fire, which moved quickly through the park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Preliminary information indicates the fire was an accident, Mokosso said.

"Investigators suspect the use of open flames for heating near easily combustible material as the potential cause of the fire," he said.

Friday's fire comes as city officials are preparing to close eight homeless encampments in the city, including the one at Kellogg Park, and relocate residents to shelters starting next week. They cite a risk of fires and exposure to the cold for the impending closures.

The fire department has responded to Kellogg Park 17 times for fire emergencies and 75 times for emergency medical calls for service so far this year, Mokosso said.

There are seven other encampments across the city. Crews have responded to 30 out-of-control fires this year at camps where propane cylinders and other flammable heat sources have caught fire, officials said.

City and county officials on both sides of the river are trying to find other accommodations for the homeless.

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the city has set up two temporary emergency shelters in recent weeks. The goal now is to persuade people living in encampments to come indoors and seek long-term help.

The number of people living outside has skyrocketed this year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. Ramsey County has already leased a vacant dormitory at Luther Seminary and the old Bethesda Hospital building to serve as temporary shelters.

The county also is looking at opening a third shelter in an old office and residence maintained by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood.

In Hennepin County, a notice of closure was given this week to the people living in an encampment on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. About 40 tents had been set up and there was a fire last weekend. The city has also removed about 100 propane tanks.

The county has spent more than $42 million in federal funding during the pandemic to buy buildings to house COVID patients and specific homeless populations, such as women and American Indians. Overall, the county has found housing for more than 1,500 homeless people.

Staff writers Shannon Prather and David Chanen contributed to this story

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768