60+ fires broke out overnight on July 4 in Detroit, surpassing Devils’ Night

The map shows house and commercial building fires from midnight July 3 to 8 a.m. July 5. Not included are fires in garages, cars, trash cans and empty lots. 

It was one of the most destructive nights of arson in Detroit in years.

Ladder 6 attacks a fire early in the morning on July 5. Photo by Steve Neavling/MCM
Ladder 6 attacks a fire early in the morning on July 5. Photo by Steve Neavling/MCM

In just 10 hours beginning at 8 p.m. on July 4, more than 60 fires broke out in houses, garages, cars, trash cans and a vacant furniture store. Two fire trucks crashed and another (Engine 27) broke down en route to a burning house as the city continues to rely on an aging, worn-down fleet of rigs.

The fires were more frequent and destructive than any period during the past five Devils’ Nights, according to a Motor City Muckraker analysis of fire data.

In those 10 hours, fires burned:

  • 22 houses
  • 1 commercial building
  • 2 garages
  • 6 cars
  • 9 dumpsters
  • 21 brush, piles of rubbish (not counted in final tally)

By comparison, during the same 10-hour period of Devil’s Night last year, fires burned:

  • 20 houses
  • 1 commercial building
  • 1 garage
  • 4 cars
  • 2 dumpsters
  • 5 brush, piles of rubbish (not counted in final tally)

It was the second year in a row that more fires broke out on the Fourth of July than Devils’ Night, the decades-long tradition of setting houses, buildings and garbage cans on fire the day before Halloween. Despite the trend, the city did not recruit volunteers to patrol or even place more police on the street like it does on Devils’ Night, which the city has reclaimed as “Angels’ Night.”

A fire gutted a city-owned building that used to be a furniture store on Chene. Photo by Steve Neavling/MCM
A fire gutted a city-owned building that used to be a furniture store on Chene. Photo by Steve Neavling/MCM

During the 12-hour period, more than 80% of the house fires were suspicious. The blazes were bigger and more destructive than Devils’ Night, spreading to at least five neighboring houses, in part because the city didn’t have enough functioning fire engines and trucks to send out.

Shortly after midnight, firefighters were so busy that they were reluctant to request extra manpower because the city was running dangerously close to having no trucks to respond to new fires. In fact, the city’s six squads, which are used to save lives, were backed up on fires and car accidents and couldn’t respond to at least three house blazes.

Two ladder trucks battle a blaze with the moon in the background. By Steve Neavling/MCM
Two ladder trucks battle a blaze with the moon in the background. By Steve Neavling/MCM

If a fire broke out downtown, the city would have been in big trouble. The city’s downtown fire engine, for example, was sent 7 miles away for a fire in southwest Detroit. The city’s few working ladder trucks, which are critical to extinguishing high-rise fires and rescuing people from upper floors, were also far away at other fires.

Firefighters weren’t just busy at house fires. They were called to at least three hit-and-runs, including one fatality. Another car crashed into a building on the east side, and despite firefighters finding weapons, police weren’t available to respond. Police also couldn’t respond to another hit-and-run in which a driver used the car “as a weapon,” smashing into other vehicles.

The city was expecting to receive 10 new fire engines by July 4, but they  didn’t arrive in time because of cost overruns and a questionable bidding process that fire officials have declined to discuss. Mayor Mike Duggan’s office also has refused to answer questions about the new Smeal engines and generally has declined to discuss the crisis in the Fire Department. His office, in fact, has barred us from interviewing anyone without first sending questions by e-mail.

For the purposes of comparing the fires to Devils’ Night, we won’t count the rubbish and tree fires because the city doesn’t: During the 24-hour period of July 4 beginning at 8 a.m., 43 fires broke out in houses, buildings, garages and Dumpsters. During the same period of Devils’ Night, 34 fires broke out.

More fires were still recorded on the three-day period surrounding Devils’ Night – more than 90 – because of a slow Sunday for firefighters. About 80 fires were recorded on the three-day July 4 weekend, and that doesn’t count the dozens of rubbish and brush fires.

The city’s failure to adequately protect residents from fires has led to our yearlong analysis of every fire in Detroit.

The project is funded by contributions. To help us continue the project, please consider a contribution.

Steve Neavling

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.

  • Mike

    And we still haven’t caught any arsonists.

  • Trexinmichigan

    Not a peep on the local news. Thanks for the info.

    • James

      You know the local media doesn’t care about this.

  • Floridaviadetroit

    Wow! How did you get a Freedom of information Act request through so fast. Official numbers usually are not released that quick in the “D” lord knows I tried. If these numbers are truly accurate it is really something the city needs to look at.

    • Floridaviadetroit

      Can you get the National Fire Incident Reporting data on this!

  • Billy Blake

    Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove Bob Seger

  • Alan Goldsmith

    Good reporting!

  • Miles666

    Thanks for keeping up on this. Hopefully it doesn’t take a disaster to get new equipment and manpower.

  • Bruce Channell

    It was a hot time in the old town that night!!!

  • bebow

    Why isn’t this being reported elsewhere? Is the local media stifled by surveillance?