Deadly Salt Lake City RV fire shows how Utah’s lack of homeless shelters can lead to disaster

As officials debate funding and policy action, activists say people experiencing homelessness are forced to take risks to find shelter during the state’s frigid winters.

Stephen Brennan parked his motor home beneath an Interstate 80 overpass near Redwood Road on the evening of Dec. 28.

A snow squall had ripped through the Wasatch Front a day earlier, bringing strong winds and about 3 inches of snow on Salt Lake City. Brennan was in a white 1997 model Roadmaster, a recreational vehicle with zagging teal and tan streaks on its sides. It would dip down to just 16 degrees that night. He invited two friends inside, to escape the biting cold.

The next morning, one of those men, Eric Miller, sat on the couch with two propane tanks. He was trying to extract the compressed, liquid gas from a larger, white tank into a smaller green one, which is meant for camping stoves and is typically more expensive.

Sanitizing wipes burned in a container nearby, likely meant to keep the men warm. Brennan sat closer to the back of the RV, repairing a propane-fueled camp stove.

Tony Pullan, the second friend, was excited. He had finally collected all the ingredients to make eggs and pancakes for breakfast. Another camp stove was already lit, sitting close to the exit door.

There was something bothering Pullan though — he smelled gas. When he mentioned it to the others, they said “not to worry about it,” police noted in a report. He “was just paranoid.”

Then, the green tank Miller was refilling blew off the larger one. Propane released and turned to vapor, and because it’s heavier than air, it fell to the ground, striking one of the open flames where, investigators concluded, it combusted.

Pullan ran outside, yelling at his friends to “get out, get out, get out” as the fire quickly consumed the cabin, working front to back through fabric, wood, plastic and the propane tanks.

Flames now blocked the door. Pullan sprayed it with a fire extinguisher he borrowed from someone nearby, but it did “nothing,” he told investigators. The men were trapped.

(Salt Lake City Fire Department) Firefighters try to combat smoke and flames inside Stephen Brennan's burning RV on Dec. 29, 2021. Brennan and another man, Eric Miller, were killed in the blaze.

‘Not sustainable’

In Utah’s capital city, promised overflow shelters for people experiencing homelessness didn’t fully open until well after the first winter snowfall.

County and city officials continue to instruct staff to raze unsanctioned encampments and tow RVs and other vehicles used as living spaces if they’re parked for too long on city streets. There is a moratorium on building any permanent shelters through at least April.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has called on state lawmakers to step in, saying in her recent State of the City address that Salt Lake has taken an outsized role in trying to combat the state’s homelessness crisis and it needs help.

“The current imbalance,” Mendenhall said in her Jan. 26 speech, “is simply not sustainable for Salt Lake City taxpayers.”

Lawmakers during the legislative session allocated $55 million to homelessness services — a far cry from the $128 million Gov. Spencer Cox asked for, and the hundreds of millions that state auditors anticipated would be needed to provide housing for the state’s growing homeless population.

Organizer Ty Bellamy said the bureaucracy is frustrating and untenable.

Bellamy, who founded the Black Lives for Humanity group and distributes clothing, blankets and other items at encampments, said officials should implement new, alternative ideas in response to the crisis. That should include letting people get by as best they can until they have a better option, she said, envisioning “safe zones” to pitch tents and park tiny homes or RVs.

Salt Lake City has no safe spaces. It’s one reason why Brennan settled on a spot without proper propane hookups, where he and his friends decided, that morning, to cook breakfast.

“And now we’ve got two dead people,” Bellamy said.

And Pullan? Bellamy said, “He narrowly avoided death, and he isn’t doing well.”

‘Huge flames’

The first 911 caller that frigid December morning thought the blaze was a large, industrial building fire.

“I can see huge flames,” he told the dispatcher, according to audio released in a public records request.

Minutes later, a flurry of reports came in. They all described an RV engulfed in fire beneath the Redwood Road overpass.

“It looks like it’s a motor home,” one caller said, “and I know that that’s where a lot of the homeless population has been locating.” He continued, “Whatever it is, it’s burning real good.”

The first call came at 7:08 a.m. Dispatchers learned the correct address by 7:12 a.m. A crew was fighting the fire by 7:20 a.m.

Over the next 12 minutes, firefighters climbed a ladder and busted through the RV’s back window, pulling out the first person trapped. By 7:36 a.m., firefighters had extracted the second. Both Brennan and Miller were declared dead within minutes.

(FOX 13) A Salt Lake City firefighter walks near the scene where an RV caught on fire early Dec. 29. Three people were inside when the fire broke out and two of them died.

Temperatures didn’t rise above freezing until just before 5 p.m. that day.

At least one crew of firefighters dispatched to the blaze got stuck at a railroad crossing, waiting for a passing train, according to documents requested from the fire department. Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Anthony Burton said even if they weren’t delayed, it wouldn’t have made much difference based on how the fire started and how fast it spread.

Burton praised the crews’ improvisation, thinking quickly to find another way into the RV once they realized the vehicle’s only door wasn’t an option.

He said Salt Lake City crews prepare for situations like this. Since the housing crisis began, firefighters are responding to more calls at “alternative shelters,” Burton said. They regularly scout the city’s homeless encampments, preparing for how many people may be at risk if something happened, or how they would respond if a fire broke out.

“Knowing that the people are going to try to stay warm and sometimes those means aren’t the best…when we pre-plan these areas, we worry about it,” Burton said.

Between 2008 and 2017, The National Fire Protection Association reported 5,840 fires related to RVs, campers or motor homes, accounting for 35 deaths and 144 injuries. The data shows most fires take place in the western and southern regions of the U.S.

Thirty-three percent of them were fires in motor homes used as a structure, as opposed to RVs used as a vehicle. Despite making up just a third of all reported RV fires, such structure fires accounted for 69% of all RV fire-related deaths.

Andrea G. Vastis, NFPA’s senior public education director, said those figures don’t distinguish between people who use their RVs as a primary residence, versus people using them for recreation. But data shows fires are more likely to happen in the summer, even though January and February often see the highest number of RV fire-related deaths.

“Which would make sense,” Vastis said, “because people are inside, and they might be using heating equipment.”

In RV fires classified as structure fires, the most common ignition source was electrical wires or cable insulation. Just after that — accounting for 280 fires — was flammable or combustible liquids or gases. Those fires accounted for the most injuries, according to the NFPA.

Jeanette Padilla, a local advocate who serves meals to people experiencing homelessness through the nonprofit Food Justice Coalition, said she’s noticed more people this year trying to find a vehicle of some sort to stay in for the winters.

Tents aren’t meant to be full-time shelters, noted Padilla, the nonprofit’s executive director. Most aren’t even meant for recreational use in the winter.

Those who are able to find vehicles to shelter in sometimes find that those vehicles don’t run, or don’t run reliably, and may or may not have working electrical and gas systems. That leaves residents relying on alternative heating or cooking sources, like a propane camp stove, even if it’s considered unsafe.

“For them, it’s a very easy call. They want to stay warm,” Padilla said. “It’s a basic survival instinct.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanette Padilla passes out heat cans with the Food Justice Coalition, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

What is Utah doing?

Almost a week after the deadly fire, Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro-Eschler noted in a meeting that there was another RV fire that week at a nearby gas station. No one died in that second fire, which was caused by the driver pulling away from the pump with the nozzle still in his gas tank.

“I know this is a really unwieldy problem. … This needing to stay heated thing is causing a lot of stress on our emergency responders,” she said. “Is there any sort of grassroots education on how to survive without dying, without compromising the safety of our fire people?”

Andrew Johnston, the city’s homelessness policy and outreach director, said crews go out to encampments to provide safety information, but he conceded it was a difficult problem.

“Really, fundamentally, we’ve got to get folks an option inside,” he said.

City officials have spoken to leaders in other municipalities about alternative options, Johnston said, including cordoning off designated areas where people can camp.

”But there aren’t any sort of clear answers to that because everything costs a fair amount of money,” he said.

“It would be a long-term investment,” he continued. “And it hasn’t been a part of the prioritization quite yet for the limited amount of state funds that are available.”

Dan Dugan, Salt Lake City Council chair who represents District 6, said there are also concerns that sanctioned camping could attract more campers. He worried it would be hard to find land to use.

“We are working our tails off to reduce the pain and the suffering…,” Dugan said. “This is a responsibility for us and it pains us that we can’t find a good solution.”

The city council recently approved a $100,000 pilot project that would help people get run-down RVs working again so they aren’t towed for remaining in one spot too long. The funding also goes to towing companies to compensate for getting rid of abandoned RVs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A note and citation on an impounded RV parked at Stauffer's Towing & Recovery in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Millions more in funding needed

Since 2016, state funding for homelessness services has increased by 600% as Utah’s homeless population has increased, according to a November report from the state auditor. Auditors said that’s a problem.

The report found that the state would need $300 million for the 1,200 housing units needed to shelter Utah’s chronically homeless population. If that population grows by the hundreds like it has each of the past two years, the state would need to provide an additional $52 million every year.

Those figures are just for people considered chronically homeless. It would cost $525 million to house the entire homeless population of just Salt Lake County, auditors estimated.

“There is concern as to whether the homeless services system can use that level of funding efficiently and effectively,” auditors wrote. “We share these concerns.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burnt remnants can be seen in the spot where where two people were killed under the overpass on 200 South near 1700 West, in an RV fire last December, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Auditors called for better cohesion between groups providing services and asked state and local leaders to create a coordinated spending plan to use that money efficiently. The audit notes that this isn’t the first time they’ve made this recommendation. They made it in 2017, 2018 and 2020.

The report also suggested that the state better define its goal to reduce homelessness. Do officials want to get people in homes? Do they also want to support programs that help prevent people from losing their homes, like providing treatment for substance misuse and those facing mental illness?

“Other goals and strategies will be needed if Utah’s homeless services system is to address a client’s mental health and behavioral needs,” the report said.

Wayne Niederhauser, the state homelessness services coordinator, said in response to the audit that officials will update the state strategic plan on homelessness and work with the homelessness council to better track data among service providers.

“That’s an effort that we want to spend a lot of time on,” Niederhauser said. “How do we go upstream and help people have resiliency so they don’t end up in homelessness?”

Those changes will take time, though. Developers won’t get the $55 million lawmakers set aside for deeply affordable housing until fall. Meanwhile, people are living on the streets. And when snow falls, and temperatures plummet, they have to make a calculation to survive, Padilla said.

“I feel like it’s the bureaucracy that’s really holding us back,” Padilla said, “but while we are held up by this system, people are literally dying. Something’s got to change.”

The people impacted

Niederhauser said that untreated mental illness and substance misuse are two of the most common reasons people lose their homes. Often, people experiencing homelessness have dealt with varying degrees of trauma.

Joseph Miller, the father of one of the men who died in the Dec. 29 blaze, said he hadn’t talked to his son Eric Miller in approximately two years, ever since the elder Miller was placed on probation. If he drank alcohol, failed a drug test or received new charges, the father faced prison time, the conditions stated.

“I told him I can’t be around that,” Joseph Miller remembered saying, “‘You’ve got to either straighten up and fly right, or you’re going to have to go your way,’ you know?”

So, Eric Miller went his own way, ending up in Brennan’s RV that December morning.

Joseph Miller said he often worried about his son. The father spent about two years living in an encampment north of the Capitol, sleeping outside in the cold winter months after he got injured in a bicycle wreck and lost his job.

He learned his son died from a Facebook message, he said. The medical examiner released Eric’s body to him, according to police records. He didn’t plan a funeral.

“I really wish I could have got a hold of him before all this happened, but I mean, I can’t change what’s done,” Joseph Miller said. “It tears me up inside.”

Joseph Miller described Eric as a “good kid,” but said he regretted that Eric didn’t have more supervision growing up. Eric was a talented rapper who used the stage name K-TOXZ, he said. His Soundcloud profile states that he “survived a turbulent childhood filled with dysfunction, domestic violence, drug & alcohol abuse, and complete chaos.”

He was a “proud parent of a son from a failed relationship,” the profile stated.

“People who grew up poor like I did need to have that one artist or musician that they feel is in their corner. Someone who isn’t only about the good life, someone who paints pictures that outcasts and troubled people can too relate to,” Eric Miller wrote. “If you grew up poor like me, [then] my music is for you.”

Brennan’s family declined to be interviewed. He also liked music, according to his obituary, and “marched to the beat of a different drum, both literally and figuratively.” In high school, he was in the Copper Hills High School Marching Band and could learn to play any instrument, the obituary states.

“Stephen was creative in so many ways and was not afraid to take on any project. He never denied a request for help, and he could fix just about anything,” the obituary said. “When he put his mind to it, nothing could stop him.”

Court documents show he also struggled with drugs, and records indicate that he had issues maintaining the requirements of his probation.

After he was released from jail in March 2014, Brennan had planned to live with a family member in South Jordan, an April 2015 probation violation report notes. But after a series of drug-related charges starting eight months later, relatives told his supervisor that he wasn’t allowed to live with the family member anymore, court records indicate.

Relatives learned Brennan died after seeing his RV on fire on the news, according to an incident report on the blaze.

The sole survivor of the fire, Pullan, has already endured more loss and cold nights. Burton, with SLCFD, said Pullan declined emergency resources the day of the tragedy.

In the weeks after the fire, someone stole Pullan’s bicycle, he said. Later, when he went to the Fourth Street Clinic seeking treatment for frostbite on his fingers and toes and a persistent, painful cyst, someone stole his backpack from the waiting room.

About an hour after the theft, Pullan fought back tears recounting the story from the booth of a fast-food restaurant a few blocks away. Snow fell that morning. Temperatures that night dropped to 28 degrees, and his gloves were in that stolen bag, he said, along with everything else “I need to survive.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) On Feb. 9, 2022, Tony Pullan recounts how he narrowly escaped an RV fire that killed two his friends on Dec. 29, 2021.

Pullan drank a cup of warm coffee but said he wasn’t hungry. He didn’t want to talk about the fire. He said he felt like he could “explode” and needed to walk away.

He asked if he could try again the next day, but has since declined to speak more about it. He still doesn’t have a home.

A cold front moved into Utah this week, bringing nearly a foot of dense, wet snow to some parts of the valley overnight March 5. A few days later, another winter storm hit, bringing more snow and predicted temperatures as low as 12 degrees in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

— Tribune staff photographer Rick Egan contributed to this report.