The Tempe City Council will vote this week on an agreement to pay the state $150,000 for a portion of repairs made to the roof of the Arizona Historical Society Museum, which was damaged by a 2016 brush fire.
The agreement would settle a drawn-out lawsuit in which the state alleged that Tempe was liable for the fire because it failed to properly maintain the riparian area that burned just west of the museum.
The June 16, 2016, fire ignited late in the evening, charring about an acre of unmaintained desert landscape on the eastern edge of Papago Park. The fire is believed to have started in a nearby homeless camp.
Embers from the fire drifted onto the museum roof, damaging the structure and threatening the wood roof of the neighboring Sandra Day O’Connor House, the former home of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The fire caused about $470,000 in damage to the museum, which is owned by the Arizona Historical Society, a state agency.
The state sued Tempe in Maricopa County Superior Court in June 2017 alleging that the city was negligent in clearing the brush and homeless camps. The claim was for less than the total costs of the repairs because the state only sought to recover the depreciated value of the roof.
The city denied the state’s claim.
As part of the settlement, the state agrees to dismiss its lawsuit, according to a copy of the agreement, which goes before the council on Thursday.
Second fire in less than a year
Flames and embers from the fire could be seen shooting almost 50 feet into the air, but city emails revealed it was the second fire in the area within a year thought to be caused by homeless camps.
A similar fire erupted in the area on New Year’s Eve 2016.
The emails also showed that the Historical Society had made multiple requests for the city to clean up the densely overgrown brush in the area, known as the Green Line.
After the fire, investigators found several homeless camps in and near the area where the fire erupted, according to the fire investigation report.
According to the state’s lawsuit, the city was aware of a threat posed by the nearby homeless encampments but didn’t make any effort to clean the area despite museum officials’ requests.
City ramps up cleanup efforts
Since the fire and amid residents’ growing complaints about safety in the park, the city has focused its efforts on cleaning up its portion of Papago Park.
Staff cleared much of the brush near the Green Line and has removed more than 100 tons of trash, including mattresses, makeshift tents, cardboard and bags, since 2016.
The cleanup has intensified since Tempe residents overwhelmingly voted to make Papago Park a preserve in 2018.
The preserve designation barred development on the park land, but it has also given the city leverage in curbing homeless encampments. Urban camping is prohibited in Tempe’s portion of Papago Park because it’s designated a preserve.
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