By the time Detroit firefighters arrived, there was little they could do. Flames were tearing through two abandoned houses and were spreading to two more homes on Garland Street on the east side at 2:20 a.m. on June 20.
Less than two hours after the intentionally set fires were extinguished, firefighters were called back to the same street a block north where two abandoned houses and an occupied home were ablaze. The suspicious fire spread to two more houses.
The nine fires were the start of a four-day period in which Detroit firefighters battled more than 80 fires in houses, businesses, garages, apartment buildings, a school and a church. Most were suspicious and in abandoned structures.
During that time, three residents and a firefighter were injured.
An examination of the fires reveals the enormity of the challenges for a cash-strapped department that is fighting arsons with fewer firefighters and a shortage of functioning engines and trucks. Over the four days, ladder trucks often had no aerial operations. Four-minute response times have stretched into six to eight minutes because of fire station closures in 2012.
With only enough arson investigators to handle between 20% and 30% of all suspicious fires, arsonists are growing bolder, striking multiple houses within blocks of each other. That is draining the already depleted force, leaving some areas without immediate fire protection.
Mayor Mike Duggan plans to soon add seven new positions to the 12-member arson section.
“Currently the section is assigning cases on a priority basis and have split the city into four quadrants that investigators can focus their time and resources,” mayoral spokesman John Roach said. “One of our members also is assigned a K-9 (Colby) and is a liason with the ATF. The unit is attempting to be proactive as best is allowed given the manpower constraints.”
In 2012, then-Mayor Dave Bing reduced the fire department’s $184 million budget by 20%. A third of the fire companies were closed, firefighter wages were cut by 10%, and rigs quickly went into disrepair.
The city averages between 8 and 12 structure fires a day – most of which are suspected arsons.
Over the four-day period we examined, firefighters battled fires in 62 houses, seven garages, nine commercial buildings, two apartments, a church and Mason Elementary School at Harned and E. Lantz St.
Who’s starting the fires? With more than 80,000 abandoned buildings spread across an area large enough to fit San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan, Detroit is fertile ground for arsonists. There are the thrill-seekers and people who are tired of abandoned buildings. There are those who could never sell their house on the market so they burn it for insurance money.
In addition to house fires, the department also responds to car accidents, vehicle and rubbish fires, downed power lines and rescue attempts.
Earlier this month, nearly 24 hours passed without a structure fire before someone set an occupied house ablaze.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.