September 9, 2010 in Nation/World

Wind-driven fires fan Detroit’s woes

Flames likely due to downed power lines
Corey Williams Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Burned cars and property are seen on the west side of Detroit on Wednesday. A fire swept through at least three neighborhoods.
(Full-size photo)

DETROIT – For a city already struggling with high unemployment, widespread foreclosures and deep budget cuts, here was another crisis: Wind-whipped fires tearing through row after row of homes, some of them abandoned.

The flames, probably sparked by downed power lines Tuesday evening, jumped from rooftop to rooftop, fed by winds up to 50 mph. The fires swept though several neighborhoods across Detroit, including some that were well-tended and others filled with deteriorating vacant houses and weed-filled lots.

At least 85 structures were destroyed or scorched by the flames. Fire Commissioner James Mack said it was the worst spate of fires since the 1980s, when firefighters regularly battled hundreds of arsons on the night before Halloween.

No injuries were reported, but by Wednesday people in some charred areas began complaining that firefighters took as much as 90 minutes to respond.

Mayor Dave Bing defended city crews, saying officials “can do all the planning in the world, but when something of this magnitude hits any city, you just have to respond.” He called the fires a “natural disaster.”

The news conference where Bing spoke became testy as the mayor was pressed with questions about a utility company’s response to a report of downed or sparking wires before the first blazes broke out.

“We’re dealing with folks’ lives!” Bing nearly shouted. “Let me deal with that. Let me deal with that.”

The National Weather Service said a combination of dry air and high wind helped fuel the blazes over a four-hour period late Tuesday.

City Council President Charles Pugh said it was a “freakish day” because of the wind, and he played down complaints that the department was too poorly equipped to respond. Suburban departments reached out to help.

“That would have been a difficult day for the fire department if we added $100 million to the fire department budget,” Pugh said.

The department has about 500 firefighters, about 20 fewer than last year. The 236 on duty Tuesday is the typical number working each day.

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