Nearly one full month after a homeless encampment fire sent a tower of black smoke into the skies over Dallas, the City has apparently made no efforts to investigate the incident or attend to its aftermath.

As The Dallas Express previously reported, a fire on the evening of June 18 engulfed the contents of a homeless encampment and a large tree overhanging an on-ramp to Interstate 45. The encampment and blaze were located in Council Member Paul Ridley’s District 14, at the edge of a fenced-in vacant lot at 1823 North Hall St.

One Dallas Police Department officer, Officer R. Beck, responded to the scene. Minutes later, a Dallas Fire-Rescue engine arrived, and DFR personnel worked to extinguish the flame.

As the firefighters tended to the blaze, the woman whose belongings had been ignited approached the scene, wailing, before turning away to walk down the road. She was intercepted at the scene by Officer Beck, who spoke to her about the incident.

Beck told The Dallas Express that he asked the DFR personnel who were present if they wanted to interview the woman, and they had declined.

The woman, who identified herself only as Leilani, told The Dallas Express that she had returned to the encampment because a friend called her to warn her about the fire. According to Leilani, that friend informed her that another person had been witnessed setting the fire intentionally.

While Leilani had an open warrant out for her arrest, Officer Beck opted not to arrest her at the time.

The Dallas Express has made repeated attempts to locate and interview Leilani in the weeks since the fire, with no success.

Despite Leilani’s claim that the fire was set intentionally and that there was at least one eyewitness to the incident, multiple City agencies have indicated to The Dallas Express that no investigation is underway.

When The Dallas Express inquired as to whether Leilani’s account had led to the opening of an arson investigation, DPD public information officer Michael D. Dennis responded, “I did not find anything. You may want to check with Dallas Fire-Rescue.”

Kristin Lowman, another DPD public information officer, confirmed to The Dallas Express that DFR arson investigators retain primary responsibility for cases of this nature in Dallas. DPD “would become involved if an arrest needs to be made following an arson investigation” or “in the event someone dies as a result of an arson,” according to Lowman.

An emailed statement from DFR public information officer Jason L. Evans read:

“I am aware of the incident you’re referring to. However, considering the only thing reported burning (according to the 911 call sheet) was a ‘pile of clothes’, there were no media inquiries about it when it happened; giving me no reason to gather additional details.

“I would have to consult with the firefighters who responded that evening regarding the course of events, but I can tell you that Fire Operations personnel are typically responsible for suppression not investigation.

“To that note, an investigation is not typically done on a fire unless a structure is damaged or there are other circumstances that would necessitate an investigation.”

Despite suggesting that he would consult with the personnel on scene, Evans did not provide additional information on the course of events from DFR’s perspective.

The Dallas Express followed up to ask whether a reported eyewitness alleging arson falls under “other circumstances that would necessitate an investigation.”

The Dallas Express also noted that video footage of the blaze shows a large tree and other items burning rather than merely the “pile of clothes” indicated on the 911 call sheet. A portion of the charred tree has since broken off and fallen onto the fence of the 1823 N. Hall St. lot. If another section were to split in the other direction, debris could fall onto the busy road which the tree overhangs.

Evans responded:

“Considering no structure was involved, this would not typically result in a [sic] investigation. However, if someone had information indicating an arson, they could most certainly request that we look into it further.

“While I can see that the video shows more than just a ‘pile of clothes,’ I can only tell you what the 911 call sheet indicated.”

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Evans directed The Dallas Express to file an open records request for the rest of the information.

The potential risk from the burnt-out tree raises another question: Who bears responsibility for cleanup after incidents like this?

Page Jones Clark, a public information officer for the City, told The Dallas Express, “The Office of Homeless Solutions does not currently have a cleaning policy in place due to the risk of fires.”

“However, in the event of a fire at a homeless encampment, we are prepared to work with the appropriate departments to schedule necessary cleanings,” she added. “Please note that the specific departments involved may vary depending on the location of the encampment.”

DFR’s Evans similarly noted, “While the department does work with the Office of Homeless Solutions when it comes across homeless encampments, we do not work with anyone when it comes to clean up after a fire at one.”

The Dallas Express has returned to the scene of the fire multiple times since June 18. While some of the original debris is no longer present at the site, much of the blaze’s aftermath remains in the area around the burnt tree.


Photos from the incident | Images by Collin Pruett/The Dallas Express

In addition to the messes and hazards left behind, the cost of these incidents to Dallas taxpayers is especially noteworthy.

Responding to an open records request filed by The Dallas Express in March, the City stated that “[t]he estimated average cost to respond to a trash fire = $1,616.28 (in labor only) using an engine or a truck whichever is available from emergency operation apparatus.”

According to the Dallas Fire-Rescue incident dashboard, there were 1,261 reports of trash fires in 2022. This figure is slightly higher than the 1,206 Evans relayed to The Dallas Express in a previous message in March.

Based on the figure from the DFR incident dashboard, the total 2022 taxpayer cost of trash fires in labor alone would be estimated at $2,038,129.08. Using Evans’ lower figure, the total would be estimated at $1,949.233.68.

This total does not account for equipment and other direct costs incurred during trash fire responses, nor does it account for damage to any public or private property caused by the fires.

In addition to these material costs, the hundreds of trash fires occurring every year could add more pressure to an already burdened public resource.

DFR was severely hampered last year by a shortage of functioning fire trucks, as previously reported by The Dallas Express. Additionally, KERA reported in May that the department is also suffering from a staffing shortage, which has resulted in burdensome overtime costs and operational strain.

Notably, there was a dramatic spike in trash fire incidents at the start of this year before a sudden blackout in available City data after February 3.

In January 2023, 164 reports were made, according to the dashboard — more than in any single month the previous year. January is the last month for which a complete dataset is currently available.

Council Member Ridley’s District 14 — where the June 18 blaze occurred — saw 137 reported trash fires last year, along with a nearly 100% year-over-year spike in January 2023, according to the DFR dashboard.

Three other districts logged more trash fires than Ridley’s in 2022. District 7, represented by Council Member Adam Bazaldua, had 163 reports. District 2, represented by Council Member Jesse Moreno, logged 185.

The most significant share of reported trash fires last year occurred in Council Member Omar Narvaez’s District 6, which had a staggering 230 incidents.

The Dallas Express reached out to Council Member Ridley about the June 18 incident and to Council Members Narvaez, Moreno, and Bazaldua about their citywide highs in 2022.

An automated reply from Ridley indicated that he was “currently out of office during Council Recess, with limited access to emails.” Responses from Moreno’s and Bazaldua’s offices similarly suggested that the council members were indisposed during City Council’s month-long summer recess. No response was received from Narvaez by the time of publication.

Interestingly, the vacant site in Ridley’s district where the fire broke out last month was slated not long ago for a major development.

Property records indicate that the large, fenced-in lot on North Hall Street has been owned by the Texas branch of the supermarket giant Kroger since 2015.

Prior to the ownership transfer to Kroger, the property had been owned by the Dallas Housing Authority since 2003, before which it was an unassigned City of Dallas property. One lot out of the bundle Kroger bought was the historic site of the B.F. Darrell School, Dallas’ original black high school, which operated from 1892 to 1969.

The price Kroger paid to take ownership of the property — totaling more than 5 acres combined — from the City is currently unclear. However, in 2016, the first year following the acquisition, Dallas Central Appraisal District records estimated the market value at $8,250,830.

A Dallas County records search yields one deed transfer from the Dallas Housing Authority to a TRG Hall Street LP on June 2, 2015, and a second from TRG Hall Street LP to Kroger Texas LP on June 8. Each document lists the sale price as $10.

The Dallas Express submitted an open records request with the City of Dallas to confirm the actual sale price but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

In October 2021, more than six years after the sale of the property, Dallas City Council authorized a 10-year, $2-million tax incentive for Kroger and its corporate partner, Southeastern Development, on the condition that 75 of the planned mixed-use development’s 375 apartment units would be designated for “affordable housing,” per D Magazine. Council Member Ridley joined the majority to pass the measure only after cutting down its nearly $4 million original price tag.

Council Members Carolyn King Arnold, Omar Narvaez, and Cara Mendelsohn voted against the deal.

Despite this incentive, Kroger suspended all plans to develop the lot earlier this year.

At the time, John Votava, the company’s director of corporate affairs for Dallas, told The Dallas Morning News, “We are currently focused on the three new stores planned for Fort Worth, Melissa, and Plano.”

Votava declined to elaborate on why the company had deprioritized Dallas.

Since 2015, Kroger Texas has paid a total of nearly $1.8 million in property taxes on the site, according to figures from the Dallas County Tax Office. Any additional costs sunk into the project are not readily apparent.

The Dallas Express reached out to Kroger to ask whether it had been made aware of the June 18 fire at the company property, whether it was aware of the homeless encampments surrounding the property, and whether the multimillion-dollar development plan had been canceled due to the pervasiveness of homelessness and vagrancy in Dallas.

Votava responded simply, “Our plans for the site are currently on hold.”