Detroit fires add to burned, vacant landscape of some already suffering neighborhoods

The homes next door and down the block from Toni Booker's Detroit house have been vacant for months, covered in gang graffiti and stripped of anything valuable.

After a wildfire raged through her east side neighborhood this week, those same homes now are charred, some gutted.

"I just want to know, will they leave it like this?" she asked.

Booker's Robinwood Street already had more than its share of abandoned and previously burned houses and garages. About 33,000 vacant houses are believed to be in the city. Mayor Dave Bing has promised to tear down 3,000 this year and the same number in 2011.

At least 85 structures across Detroit, some abandoned, were destroyed or scorched as flames from Tuesday's fires jumped from rooftop to rooftop, swelled by winds of up to 50 mph. The fires swept though several neighborhoods, including some that were well-tended and others filled with deteriorating vacant houses and weed-filled lots.

No injuries were reported, but Detroit Fire Commissioner James Mack has said it was the worst spate of fires since the 1980s, when firefighters regularly battled hundreds of arsons on the night before Halloween.

Booker considered herself fortunate Thursday as she inspected the damage to her wooden bungalow, which escaped with only a partially charred roof and heat-warped siding.

"I just put new windows in, and some more work was going to be done," said Booker, a retired auto worker who was renting the home to a woman and her grandson at the time of the fire. No one was injured. "I'm trying to stick it out in Detroit."

It's a city beset with urban troubles. Nearly a third of working age adults are jobless. Foreclosure rates are high and so is crime. The city has wrestled for years with blighted neighborhoods filled with abandoned and ramshackle houses and trash-filled vacant lots overgrown with weeds as tall as people.

Fire officials have said fires in eight parts of the city Tuesday likely were caused by downed power lines, while two others were believed to be arson. They still were trying Thursday to determine the extent of the damage.

Data from firefighters who battled the fires was being collected. It remained unclear how many of the 85 structures were occupied homes, vacant dwellings or garages, community relations Chief Katrina Butler said.

Though the number of homes that burned in Tuesday's fires was large, on average about 35 homes — mostly abandoned — catch on fire daily in Detroit. On Thursday, firefighters battled several blazes throughout the city, though officials said they would not know the exact number for a few days.

At least 20 properties that burned Tuesday have been deemed dangerous by building inspectors and moved to the front of the city's emergency demolition list, Detroit Buildings & Safety Engineering Director Karla Henderson said Thursday.

Three houses likely will come down Friday, including one on Robinwood.

Others in less dire shape are being boarded up and surrounded with orange construction fencing. Only three of the houses caught in the fires were on the list of those to be torn down this year, she added.

The fires came a day before Bing presented a plan to redefine the city's landscape — including already vacant and underutilized land — to the City Council.

The vacant building problem is a public safety issue, according to Bing, who has asked residents to bring their concerns to a series of public meetings.

"Vacant properties sit there and become targets. They invite these types of situations," Henderson said.

Fire staffing levels also are a concern.

The city had 58 companies and 236 firefighters respond to Tuesday's blazes — the typical number of firefighters the city has working each day. The firefighters union has warned city officials that the department needs between 200 and 300 more firefighters to keep 65 companies open.

State Sen. Hansen Clarke, a Detroit Democrat, said Thursday that his office has contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency about grants to hire more firefighters. Clarke, who is seeking the 13th Congressional District seat in November, plans to meet next week with federal officials.

"I want to let them know the urgency of it," he said. "We want to get more firefighters funded so this doesn't happen again. We've got to help people and redevelop the area."

Cleaning up fire-damaged areas also is the city's plan, Henderson said.

Grants and federal funding will be sought out to help support new construction to replace burned down houses in more stable neighborhoods.