Detroit fire officials compiling data, assessing damage from wind-fed wildfires

By Corey Williams, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fire officials assess damage from Detroit blazes

DETROIT — Fire officials in Detroit are trying to determine the extent of damage caused by a series of blazes that swept across the city.

Community Relations Chief Katrina Butler said Thursday the department was compiling data from firefighters who battled Tuesday’s wind-fed wildfires. Butler says it is unclear how many of the 85 structures that caught fire were occupied homes, vacant dwellings or garages.

The city is believed to have about 33,000 vacant houses. Mayor Dave Bing has promised to tear down 3,000 this year and the same number in 2011.

It wasn’t known whether any of the vacant houses that burned were on the demolition list.

Officials have said fires in eight locations likely were caused by downed power lines, while two others were believed arson.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

DETROIT (AP) — As exhausted Detroit firefighters battled wind-fed blazes burning wild in some neighborhoods and threatening to char much of the city, a half-dozen departments from surrounding communities brought in sorely needed — and gladly accepted — help.

The assistance was rare, according to city fire officials, who said that despite budget and manpower cuts, Detroit usually is first to lend a hand. At least 85 structures, some of them abandoned, were destroyed or scorched as flames — likely sparked by downed power lines — jumped from rooftop to rooftop, swelled by winds of up to 50 mph.

“This is the first time we haven’t been able to respond to all of our runs,” said Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association union. “As much as I love my (suburban) brothers and sisters … we like to handle our own business. It was a bit embarrassing.”

While budget cuts have left the city with fewer firefighters, the help also could be a sign of changing attitudes between mostly black Detroit and its neighbors, polarized by years of political race baiting and lingering memories of a 1967 riot that accelerated the flight of whites to the suburbs.

Tuesday’s fires swept though several neighborhoods, including some that were well-tended and others filled with deteriorating vacant houses and weed-filled lots. Detroit Fire Commissioner James Mack said it was the worst spate of fires since the 1980s, when firefighters regularly battled hundreds of arsons on the night before Halloween. No injuries were reported, but people in some charred areas complained that firefighters took as much as 90 minutes to respond.

Mack said the last time suburban fire rigs helped out in the city may have been during the 1967 riot, when entire blocks went up in flames at the hands of arsonists.

Nearby Harper Woods sent a crew to help with fires Tuesday at two houses and four garages on Detroit’s east side, even before asking the city if assistance was needed. When the fire was reported, Harper Woods Deputy Fire Chief Jim Burke said, “Detroit had nobody there at all.”

By the times his crews arrived, he said, one city rig was there. “The Detroit guys welcomed our guys,” he said.

“Usually, they have enough resources where they don’t need a small, suburban department to help,” Burke added.

Given another chance, Mack said, he might have called for help from the suburbs a little sooner.

Alonzo Rush, who lives in northwest Detroit, said he heard what he believed were “pops” from an electrical transformer box before a fire started near his home. It took 90 minutes for a fire truck to arrive, by which time several nearby homes were aflame, the 62-year-old retired auto worker said.

“We called. All the neighbors called, but we didn’t get an answer at 911. … We’re not getting the services we once had and what we’re paying for,” Rush said.

Many homeowners grabbed garden hoses to protect their properties.

“I grabbed a hose, Linda grabbed a hose,” Rush said pointing to the woman who lives next door. “We were watering what we could. We were thinking it was going to come this way, but it jumped over our houses.”

Several off-duty firefighters showed up to help the two truck crews initially dispatched to the neighborhood, said Kevin Mays, 45, whose two vacant homes suffered minor damage.

“The city does what it can, but we’ve got so many problems, who knows how long it will be — if it ever gets right again,” he said.

Mayor Dave Bing defended city crews, saying officials “can do all the planning in the world, but when something of this magnitude hits any city, you just have to respond.” He called the fires a “natural disaster.”

Money also is an issue. Faced with a budget deficit of at least $85 million, Detroit has had to cut costs in almost every department, including fire operations. About $4 million has been trimmed from the fire department’s budget.

The department has about 500 firefighters, about 20 fewer than last year, Mack said.

The city had 58 companies and 236 firefighters respond to Tuesday’s blazes — the typical number of firefighters the city has working each day. The firefighters union has warned city officials that the department needs between 200 and 300 more firefighters to keep 65 companies open, McNamara said.

“Our firefighters put everything out there,” McNamara said. “Firefighters on their day off came to assist on scene. But while fires were going on, more calls came in, and we weren’t able to respond.”

Suspicion focused on power lines that were toppled by the wind. DTE Energy Co. said about 750 power lines were knocked down in the blustery weather. Company spokesman John Austerberry said the utility was investigating.

Two fires were regarded as arson, authorities said.

City Council President Charles Pugh said it was a “freakish day” because of the wind, and he played down complaints that the department was too poorly equipped to respond.

“That would have been a difficult day for the fire department if we added $100 million to the fire department budget,” Pugh said.

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