Detroit mayor calls fires ‘natural disaster’
DETROIT (AP) – Detroit Mayor Dave Bing defended a stretched fire department Wednesday and its response to what he termed “a natural disaster,” after wind-whipped flames destroyed dozens of occupied and abandoned homes across the city.
Bing said firefighters confronted conditions “that were not manmade” starting Tuesday afternoon. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph forced flames to jump from house to house, eventually encompassing 85 homes and garages – many abandoned – across several neighborhoods.
No injuries were reported.
When pressed on whether the fire department was adequately staffed, Bing sidestepped the question and pointed out that no one was killed.
“A natural disaster – (that’s) what this was,” he said at a news conference. “You just cannot plan for that.”
Alonzo Rush, 62, a retired auto worker, said it took 90 minutes for a fire truck to arrive, by which time several nearby homes were aflame.
“We called. All the neighbors called, but we didn’t get an answer at 911. … We’re not getting the services we once had and what we’re paying for,” Rush said.
Fire Commissioner James Mack told reporters the city has about 500 firefighters, about 20 fewer than last year. He said the 236 firefighters on duty Tuesday was typical, and that on any given day there are usually 35 fires in the city.
Firefighters from a half-dozen neighboring agencies assisted the Detroit fire department. If he could do anything different, Mack said he might have called for help from the suburbs a little sooner.
“We’re maximizing the manpower we have and the equipment we have,” he said. “Yesterday was an unusual day.”
City Council President Charles Pugh earlier downplayed concerns that the struggling city’s fire department was too poorly equipped to respond.
“It was a freakish day – the wind was tremendous,” he said.
“That would have been a difficult day for the fire department if we added $100 million to the fire department budget.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Tilley said the conditions had been perfect for fires to quickly move.
“The really dry air along with high wind – that would have been favorable for a fire to spread,” Tilley said.
Mack said eight of the fires were sparked by downed power wires, and he attributed two to arson. He said 62 power lines were downed overall.
DTE Energy Co. spokesman John Austerberry said the utility was investigating possible links between its lines and the fires.
On Detroit’s northwest side, four brick bungalow and Tudor-style homes were gutted; two had only chimneys remaining. Neighbors, utility and cable workers stood outside surveying the damage, while the Red Cross counted displaced families.
“My garages were burning. It was a big fireball,” said Kevin Mays, 45, whose two vacant homes suffered minor damage. His three cars and two motorcycles inside the garages were wiped out by the flames.
“It’s going to be a big hole in the neighborhood,” he said. “The neighborhood won’t be the same.”
Latosha Staples, 43, could feel the heat from her porch two blocks away from a pocket of fires.
“It felt like you were in the fire. That’s how hot it was. It was terrible,” Staples said.
The fires struck haphazardly across Detroit, hitting some blocks and skipping other streets completely.
Rush’s northwest side neighborhood is one of the most stable in Detroit. Most houses are brick and the properties are well-kept. But several miles to the east on Robinwood, the heaviest fire damage was to vacant houses already in poor condition.
Some houses are separated by vacant lots where homes once stood. The neighborhood is among Detroit’s most desperate.
The other fires spread across various parts of the east side also are among the poorest in Detroit.
DTE and utility CMS Energy Corp. said more than 120,000 customers lost power late Tuesday, although service was restored to many by the following morning.