In May last year, Brooke Delgaudio woke up in wee hours one morning to loud cracking noises. She thought it was a rare Denver rainstorm.
But it was not precipitation. Instead, a fiery inferno bore down on her West Colfax home. The heat cracked her windows.
“I gently opened my eyes and realized: ‘Holy (expletive), it looks like Mars.’ You know, like the movies and everything is orange, like this crazy orange glow,” Delgaudio said, recalling the moment she awoke.
Fortunately, Delgaudio and her husband, Greg, reunited safely outside with Nino, their Bernese mountain dog. In the rush for the exit, the couple abandoned their possessions and they were destroyed. Brooke saved her car.
The Delgaudios were living in a fourplex in the 1300 block of Xavier St. they bought it in 2017 for $469,000. The fire started on an adjacent lot at 1395 Xavier St., where a five-unit residential complex was under construction. (You can see a video of the fire someone posted to Twitter here.)
From a safe distance that morning, the couple watched the fire consume the neighboring construction site at 1395 Xavier St. — where it would later be determined the blaze started — and significantly damage their own home, which the fire department deemed “unoccupiable.”
Late last month, 14 months after the fire, the couple sued the owner of the development site and the firm building the project, alleging the site was improperly secured. They claim the poor security allowed vagrants to access the property and start the fire.
The manager of the LLC that owns the site — Tin Cheung, who goes by Ben — declined to comment on the lawsuit. Jon Harris, president of JL Harris Enterprises, which was building the five-unit residential project, also declined to comment, saying he had yet to speak with an attorney.
Prior to the fire, Brooke regularly noticed homeless people leaving the construction site in the early morning. They’d be gone by the time contractors had arrived to start their day, Greg told BusinessDen in an interview.
Jeremy Jonsen, the couple’s attorney with the firm Allen Vellone Wolf Helfrich & Factor, said the developer and contractor had been warned of the homeless activity at the site prior to the fire by both the Delgaudios and other neighbors. Jonsen said both parties failed to act.
A report by Rimkus Consulting Group, a firm hired by the Delgaudios’ insurance company, found that there was no electricity, natural gas or propane being provided to the structure at the time of the fire, and no lightning strikes were reported in the area — meaning someone had to set the blaze. Rimkus concluded the cause of the fire was likely due to homeless activity on the property, where they were using flammable materials for cooking, heating or smoking.
An official cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, according to Denver Fire Department spokesman John Chism. However, the incident report completed by the department after the blaze includes the following language: “Arson completed investigation. Verbal statement attributing to homeless activity occurring in alley.”
Homeless fires are increasing in frequency and becoming a major scourge for Denver Fire. In the first half of 2022, DFD responded to 404 fires at homeless encampments. If that pace holds, it’ll be 808 by the end of 2022, a nearly 13 percent increase from 2021’s total of 716.
According to the Rimkus report, a metal fence had been erected on three sides of the construction site prior to the fire. The company found that each fence section was connected by a twist tie at the top with no locks present, making the sections easily movable.
The gate that secured the alleyway between the two properties was usually left wide open, Greg said.
Lastly, the space between the two properties’ garages was secured by a plastic fence around 3 feet high, the report said. Brooke said that their 80-pound dog could easily hop over it, a testament to the ease of access.
When a BusinessDen reporter visited the scene in early August, over a year after the fire, several parts of the construction site still remained unsecured. Some fence sections were connected with a twist tie only and the gate to the alley was missing entirely, allowing easy access to the property. A city inspector had also left a notice citing the construction site for having overgrown vegetation.
The report also added that Harris was advised of vagrants living in the previous structure at 1395 Xavier St. before it was demolished for construction. Harris said in the report that he did not see any signs of homeless activity while the site was under construction.
The Delgaudios are currently living in Greenwood Village. They don’t know if they’ll return to the home they own on Xavier Street, which is still under repair.
The couple is seeking at least $450,000 for damage to their home and $100,000 for their personal belongings, according to Jonsen. They’re also seeking emotional damages.
Jonsen declined to discuss to what extent the couple had been compensated by insurance.
“They want to be made whole. I think we want to be compensated for everything that happened to them. So, however that occurs is fine with them,” Jonsen said.