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Detroit Fire Chief: 'I Haven't Had Anything Like This in 20 Years'

Detroit Fire Chief: 'I Haven't Had Anything Like This in 20 Years'

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Detroit Free Press via YellowBrix

September 08, 2010

“It’s been a constant situation with customers going out of service, us restoring customers, more customers going out,” Simons said of the winds.

Near Van Dyke and 7 Mile, high winds caused dead limbs to fall from trees, knocking down the wires, which ignited, Detroit Fire Capt. Steve Varnas said at the scene.

“There’s no firebug here,” he said, dismissing the idea that the blazes were caused by arson. “Throughout the whole city, the same thing is happening: Wires down everywhere.”

Behind 8035 Quinn, Varnas said, a downed wire fell on top of a garage, sparking a fire, which spread north onto Robinwood and then east down the street, taking out houses and garages.

The blaze spread north to Hollywood, where some homes were damaged.

On Hollywood, Audrey and Keith Fortune sat on their porch, relieved for now that their house escaped heavy damage as the winds blew the fire north from Robinwood.

“It looks like something out of a war zone,” Audrey Fortune, 44, said as she looked back toward Robinwood, where thick black smoke poured upward.

Allison Koenigbauer, an American Red Cross spokeswoman, said volunteers were assisting eight families in a neighborhood on the east side of Detroit with food, clothing and shelter.

“Right now, we’re assisting 13 families I know of, but there are going to be more,” she said, adding that residents of up to 20 homes may need assistance in that area. “This whole block is seriously affected.”

Koenigbauer said there were at least four families on the west side affected.

At Murray and McClellan, between seven and nine homes caught fire, and three homes were damaged by fire at Barry and McClellan.

A fire along the Detroit-Hamtramck border was contained on two blocks: Bloom and Moenart, both between Charles and Luce. One house and four garages were destroyed on Bloom and five houses and more than six garages on Moenart.

Ian Perrotta said he noticed a fire in his neighbor’s garage on Moenart before his garage, several houses away, caught on fire. He said it took more than 30 minutes for police and firefighters to arrive.

“My immediate thought when I saw the fire was it shouldn’t have been that bad,” said Perrotta, a former firefighter. “It could have been contained sooner.”

But the department was contending with a lack of equipment and manpower, having to request aid from the Warren Fire Department and receiving help from Harper Woods, which provided two rigs to battle blazes at two house and three garages on the east side.

“We’ve had aid before, just to help out in a specific area, but this time is different. We don’t have anyone available,” said Detroit Fire Capt. Dan McNamara, a 33-year veteran of the department who is president of the Detroit Firefighters Association. “It used to be we could throw enough resources to knock something big down and work our way into it. The day of reckoning has come.”

Though the city does not have enough fire trucks, McNamara said the main concern is the city doesn’t have the firefighters to staff them. Eight or nine fire companies out of 65 are shut down each day, he said.

Dan Lijana, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bing, did not know how many fire companies were in operation Tuesday night.

“We had every available company and firefighter out there,” Lijana said. “When confronted with the magnitude of those fires, we chose to do the right thing in regards to public safety and ask for help from our surrounding communities.”

The union has 988 members who are firefighters, down about 200 since 2004, and it includes another 100 or so employees in arson, fire inspection, training and community education whose ranks also have been severely trimmed, McNamara said.

“I hope this opens the city and the fire department’s eyes,” McNamara said. “To have a city that people want to live in, you have to have public safety.”