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.
A day later, a thick odor of smoke hung over one northwest side neighborhood where four brick bungalow and Tudor-style homes were gutted. Two of the homes had only chimneys remaining. Neighbors and utility workers surveyed the damage, while the Red Cross counted displaced families.
"My garages were burning. It was a big fireball," said Kevin Mays, 45.
His two vacant homes suffered minor damage, but three cars and two motorcycles inside the garages were destroyed.
"It's going to be a big hole in the neighborhood," he said. "The neighborhood won't be the same."
Suspicion focused on power lines that were toppled by the wind. DTE Energy Co. said about 750 power lines were knocked down in the blustery weather. Company spokesman John Austerberry said the utility was investigating.
Two of the fires were regarded as arson, authorities said.
In a statement, the utility said it received a call about "flickering lights, low voltage and potential energy theft" in the Robinwood neighborhood on Detroit's east side. But there was no report of a downed wire.
A utility crew located and repaired the problem, then left well before any fire was reported there, the statement read.
Latosha Staples, 43, could feel the heat from her porch two blocks away from a pocket of fires on Robinwood.
"It felt like you were in the fire. That's how hot it was. It was terrible," Staples said.
Alonzo Rush said he heard what he believed were "pops" from an electrical transformer box before a fire started near his home.
It took 90 minutes for a fire truck to arrive, by which time several nearby homes were aflame, the 62-year-old retired auto worker said.
"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.
Many homeowners grabbed garden hoses to protect their properties.
"I grabbed a hose, Linda grabbed a hose," Rush said pointing to the woman who lives next door. "We were watering what we could. We were thinking it was going to come this way, but it jumped over our houses."
Several off-duty firefighters showed up to help the two truck crews initially dispatched to Rush's neighborhood, Mays said.
"The city does what it can, but we've got so many problems, who knows how long it will be — if it ever gets right again," he said.
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.
Given another chance, 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. Tuesday "was an unusual day."
Bing said the decisions made in fighting the blazes were based on public safety.
"We had not only an unbelievable job by our fire department, but also a lot of people that didn't just stand by and watch but got totally engaged," he said.
Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, the union that represents the city's fire personnel, said Tuesday's fires were the first time firefighters were unable to respond to all fire reports.
McNamara said his union has warned city officials that the department needs between 200 and 300 more firefighters to keep 65 companies open. On Tuesday, there were 58 companies, down from 71 in 2005.
"Our firefighters put everything out there. Firefighters on their day off came to assist on scene," he said. "But while fires were going on, more calls came in, and we weren't able to respond."