Nearly 40 fires – most of them suspected arsons – broke out in houses, apartments and garages between Thursday and Friday morning in Detroit. Three fire trucks broke down at fire scenes. And the manpower shortage prevented some firefighters from getting the help they needed.
But Mayor Mike Duggan on Friday morning described Angels’ Night as “quiet” in a press release that some news agencies are running without questioning how nearly 40 fires, an injured firefighter and an ailing fleet of rigs constitute anything remotely close to quiet.
Fire Capt. Gerod Funderburg told the Free Press it “was an average night” for a weekday.
Let’s look at this closer. The city has averaged between 10 and 12 structure fires a day this year, according to fire data. In just three hours Thursday night, 15 structures burned, and the fire department ran out of manpower and couldn’t send enough firefighters to the scenes of severe blazes.
Three of those fires were so intense that they consumed seven vacant houses, some of them bordered by occupied homes.
During that time, a fire engine (#9) broke down at the scene of two vacant house fires at Mt. Elliot and E. Warren and couldn’t pump water. Firefighters nearly lost control of the blaze, which came dangerously close to an occupied home. The fire department continued to send the engine to fires until it malfunctioned at a rekindled house blaze this morning.
In the first 30 hours of Angels’ Night, 37 fires broke out in houses, apartments and garages.
When asked why the mayor described Angels’ Night as “quiet,” his spokesman John Roach conceded there were “significant fires.”
“Quiet was compared to what has been seen overall in years past, not to an average day in the city,” Roach told me.
But even then, the city is using an unusual metric to define “quiet.”
Since 2011, the city has averaged 94 fires during the three-day Angels’ Night period. The city is on pace for 94 fires again, only with less manpower and an older, ailing fleet of rigs.
When I explained that the city was still on pace for as many fires as the last three years, Roach responded: “We are looking at the longer trend.”
In that way, the city has seen a dramatic reduction since its peak of 810 fires in 1984. There were 354 fires in 1994, and 169 in 1994 during Angels’ Night, according to the city.
A meadow is quiet. A sleeping puppy is quiet. Three dozen fires in 30 hours is anything but.
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.