Up close: More than 100 fires break out over weekend, rivaling Devil’s Night

File photo by Steve Neavling
File photo by Steve Neavling

More than 100 fires broke out over the Fourth of July weekend in Detroit as arsonists torched houses, garages, vacant stores, apartment buildings, playscapes and even a clothing donation box.

The three-day weekend rivaled last year’s Devil’s Night, a 40-year Detroit tradition of setting houses ablaze, when about 110 fires were recorded over a three-day period ending on Halloween.

One firefighter was injured at a house fire at 3 a.m. Sunday.
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The fires posed a significant challenge to a city dangerously short on firefighters and equipment. Nearly all of the fire department’s aerial and tower trucks – vital to fighting big fires – are out of service.

Between Friday and Sunday, fires damaged or destroyed:

  • 6 apartment buildings
  • 55 houses
  • 8 commercial buildings
  • 10 cars
  • 15 Dumpsters
  • 2 playscapes
  • 13 piles of rubbish
  • 1 donation box

The first fire broke out at 12:12 a.m. Friday in an abandoned house on the 5000 block of Chopin and spread to another vacant home. At a house fire three hours later, Ladder 22 broke down at the scene. And as the sun began to rise Friday, a suspicious fire ripped through three houses on the west side.

The pace of fires continued through Sunday, exhausting firefighters and further straining the deteriorating fleet of trucks and engines that operate in spite of serious malfunctions.
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The fires peaked between 10 p.m. Friday and 2 a.m. Saturday, when more than 25 blazes broke out. During that time, the department ran out of squad trucks, which are critical to rescue operations. Response times reached more than 15 minutes in some cases because closer companies were at other fires.

City officials are bracing for a busy summer as brazen arsonists continue to burn down vacant homes and abandoned buildings at an alarming rate. The motives run the spectrum – collecting insurance money, thrill-seeking, removing blight.

Mayor Mike Duggan hopes to soon add investigators to the city’s depleted arson unit, but it’s unclear when the fire department will have enough money for its rapidly declining fleet.
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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.

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