Detroit firefighters overwhelmed by nearly 30 blazes on Fourth of July

Fire damaged or destroyed three homes at Addison and McGraw shortly before midnight on the Fourth of July. Photos by Steve Neavling.

Nearly 30 fires broke out in houses, garages, apartments and commercial buildings from 7 a.m. on the Fourth of July until sunrise the next morning.

It’s the fourth consecutive year that more fires broke out during the 24-hour period than the same time on Devil’s Night, a decades-long, but fading tradition of setting houses, buildings, cars and trash cans ablaze.

Many of the fires spread to adjacent structures, and at least two rigs broke down.

Firefighters were so busy that they were barred from taking a break between fires, a potential safety violation. And response times were often twice the average because firefighters were stretched thin. 

Firefighters believe arson and fireworks were the primary cause of the blazes.

“The 4th of July holiday in Detroit has become increasingly more complicated to manage,” Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, said in a press release. “The men and women of the D.F.D., once again, went to war with flames and senseless street violence during the 4th of July period. The union is thankful to report no serious injuries to any of our members.”

The 29 structure fires represent a decline over the same period last year, when firefighters battled 42 blazes. 

“This year wasn’t as bad as last year,” Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell told me.

Compared to last year, structure fires declined 44% from July 1 to sunrise on July 5.

But the numbers don’t account for numerous fires in dumpsters, cars and vacant fields. Firefighters also were overwhelmed by downed power lines, car accidents and medical runs. 

Nevin said firefighters were “overworked,” responding to an astounding 216 calls between 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Mayor Mike Duggan and some of his predecessors have credited the decline in Devils’ Night fires to volunteer community patrols. But the city hasn’t mobilized volunteer patrols on the Fourth of July, when more fires are breaking out.

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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.