Red=suspicious fires. Yellow=unknown or accidental
Less than an hour after ringing in the new year, Detroit firefighters were called to the city’s first fire of 2015 – a small blaze in an occupied house on the west side. Over the next two hours, firefighters were called back to the modest house on the 12000 block of Stout at least two more times because someone was repeatedly setting the home on fire.
“There may be a disturbance at the scene along with weapons,” a dispatcher warned firefighters.
By 3:30 a.m., the arsonist succeeded in gutting the house.
“They shot my mom at this house,” a dreadlocked man said from the back seat of a car idling outside of the burning home, his breath heavy with booze. “You don’t know what the fuck is going on. This is some gang shit.”
In Detroit, fires are a serious menace, burning neighborhood cores and chasing out longtime residents. The city’s disastrous budget decisions over the past three decades have left the fire department with a skeleton crew of firefighters and a frail fleet of routinely malfunctioning rigs.
This year we are tracking every structure fire in Detroit – more than 3,000, if the past few years are any indication. The project, Detroit on Fire, will provide an unflinching look at a crisis that has been largely ignored by the media and neglected by politicians.
In January, fires broke out in 205 houses, 10 commercial buildings, seven apartments, two churches and a school. Two people were killed and several more injured, including two firefighters.
About half of the fires were suspicious, but most will never be investigated because the arson unit is vastly outmatched by arsonists who burn down buildings for insurance, revenge, thrills, scrap metal or blight removal.
Of the buildings where firefighters could determine occupancy, slightly more than half were vacant.
During that time, 15 fire rigs malfunctioned on the way to fires or at the scene, dispatch reports show. An additional two rigs couldn’t respond to fires because the fire station doors wouldn’t open.
Firefighters were further hampered by at least 16 broken hydrants.
The failures meant blazes burned longer, causing more damage and spreading to neighboring properties.
The highest concentration of fires was in west-side neighborhoods bounded by Michigan, West Grand River, Ford and Puritan. On the east side, the area near the old State Fairgrounds also was hit hard.
Beginning Friday, we will begin running an up-to-date list of every fire with details, which we will get from dispatch reports, run sheets, 911 calls, incident reports and interviews with witnesses and firefighters. All fires will be updated within 24 hours, and post-fire photos of every property will be on Motor City Mapping, an initiative to provide current photos of every parcel in Detroit. The unique technology was created by Detroit-based Loveland Technologies.
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.