Detroit blazes see huge decline

Officials credit blight elimination, bolstered investigations, community education efforts, but union chief voices doubts

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Detroit — Less of Detroit is burning.

Daily structure fires in Detroit have declined dramatically over the past five years as a result of stepped-up arson investigations and fewer blighted buildings, according to city fire department leaders. 

The average number of structure fires annually in Detroit has declined by 42 percent since 2014, according to fire department data. Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones credits the reduction to an aggressive blight elimination program, bolstered investigations, inspections as well as community education efforts and city block clubs. 

A fire union chief acknowledges the city has fewer structure fires but says it still has a long way to go — and that conditions in the neighborhoods have improved merely from "Armageddon" to "insane."

"It's still not safe for our members and the people that live here," union President Mike Nevin said.

There were 4,741 structure fires in Detroit in 2014, compared with 2,736 in 2018, according to data. As a result, the city is now fighting an average of seven structure fires per day. That's down from about 30 per day that firefighters say they were battling five years ago. 

Despite some progress, other large Midwestern cities reviewed by The Detroit News revealed Detroit's daily structure fire average outpaces them by more than three times. For example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio, both average fewer than two structure fires per day even though Milwaukee has a greater density of people and Columbus has 56 percent more land.

But the last time Detroit's daily fire averages were believed to be in the single digits was prior to 1967's uprising, according to the city's fire union leadership.

"We're not patting ourselves on the back and celebrating, but we are seeing appreciable decreases with the fire load," Jones said. "There are far too many fires in the city, but there is value in this data to demonstrate that we're turning a corner and that the city is becoming healthier."

Officials with the city's administration have said they do not have adequate records on daily fire averages from past decades. There also is no comprehensive national data tracking of structure fires.

Fires around the traditional "Devil's Night" declined so much that for the first time in decades the city in 2018 disbanded its anti-arson Angels' Night volunteer patrols in favor of celebratory citywide events. The city logged just 16 fires during the three-day period of Oct. 29-31, a steep departure from its peak of 810 blazes over the three-day span near Halloween in 1984.

Jones said growing the arson division from a seven-person unit to a team of 25 and a demolition program that's razed more than 16,823 blighted houses since 2014 are both factors in the decline. 

Disputing the numbers

Nevin contends officials are omitting some structures and counting others as well as separating fires into categories — grass, dumpster, garage and the like — to skew the numbers. 

Nevin declined to provide figures to refute the administration's claims, saying he's awaiting a detailed Freedom of Information Act request that he contends will confirm his own tally. Then, he said, he will make his information public. 

Nevin said there were 46,578 total fire incidents for 2018, tallies he said are compiled from run sheets that are submitted to the state. 

Jones said the department displays all fire categories that it captures on the city's open data portal, which is "transparent and open for anybody."

Nevin provided The Detroit News with daily run sheets from June through September of 2018, compiled by the fire department's administration, which noted 839 structure fires — an average of about seven per day — over the four-month period.

"That is how they are manipulating runs and categorizing runs to fit a false narrative that people are properly protected," Nevin said.

But even going by Detroit's structure fire average, Nevin argues the city is still undermanned based on its fire load. He said two or three careless or accidental fires would be normal for a city Detroit's size. But the city, he said, is still fighting "major structure fires" daily. 

The fire union is not only at odds over the number of fires, but Nevin also has raised alarm over a controversial new fire response policy that he says is creating a "public safety nightmare."

The union in November filed an unfair labor practices complaint over the policy that classifies fire runs by two codes: one for emergent runs and the other for non-life-threatening calls, without lights and sirens. 

It's been quieter in Jesse Gonzales' neighborhood. Gonzales lives in one of the wooden-framed homes off Central Avenue in southwest Detroit for close to 40 years and has seen less smoke in recent years. 

Gonzales, 67, said he used to hear the fire engines often but less so after an old apartment building and abandoned house each set on fire multiple times were torn down.

"Before I used to hear the fire engine going left and right, but not as much anymore," he said. "It's been a lot safer and a lot less fires."

Arson investigations on the rise 

One key component of the fire reduction, Jones notes, is a transformation in the city's arson investigations unit and how the cases are assigned. 

"There's a lot of involvement in making sure we can identify and hopefully arrest some of these arsonists," said Jones, adding in recent years the department has assembled a police task force to assist.

In 2014, the fire department had just seven arson investigators for its 4,000-plus fires. That allowed for 810 of the 4,741 structure fires — or just 18 percent — to be investigated, Jones said. Fire officials said they were forced to focus only on the highest-priority investigations. 

The fire department's arson unit has more than tripled, from a division with just seven members to a 25-person unit with 16 fire investigators and nine police detectives.

Arson-related arrests have climbed about 43 percent from 80 in 2014 to 130 in 2018, Jones said.

The department investigated 2,325 of its fires — or 85 percent — in 2018, Jones said. It's the department's goal, he added, to investigate all city fires. 

By comparison in 2008, Detroit had a squad of 21 arson investigators and recorded 6,486 suspected arsons — almost 18 a day.

Mayor Mike Duggan added police officers to the city's arson squad in 2015, following a four-day series in The News that revealed Detroit led the nation in suspicious fires. The move was intended to free up fire investigators to probe more blazes and allow police to focus on arresting suspects.

Fire Lt. Joseph Crandall said the unit's staffing improvements, which began near the end of Detroit's bankruptcy, have aided investigators in getting to more scenes and quicker.

"Before when we did get to fires, sometimes they were older. We couldn't find anybody. The scene would be totally washed away and gone ... ," he said. "Every day, it was triage."

Arson squad chief Patrick McNulty said he recalls dealing with more than two dozen fires in a single day in the early 2000s. 

"I've been here 32 years, and I never thought I'd see the day we'd have under 10 fires upon average a day in the city," he said. 

On a weekday in August, arson investigators arrived at a home on Detroit's west side to follow up on a report of a front porch being doused with gasoline.

Crandall was part of a three-man team on the morning run assessing the scene. 

Investigators, he said, work four 10-hour shifts per week and visit one to two scenes per day. Some days are harder than others, though. The day prior, he'd visited nine scenes.

"We're going to try to capture something for analysis," said Crandall, as his partners talked with the homeowners.

Arson Capt. Omar Davidson responded soon after with his black lab, Pasta, and she confirmed what he suspected: the presence of an accelerant.

"She's a tool that we utilize," said Davidson, one of three arson squad captains, of the dog. From there, the crew turns over findings to police within the unit who prepare the case for Wayne County prosecutors. "She makes it so much easier and quicker for us to locate good samples to send to the lab. That's primarily her role."

Fire Lt. Jamel Mayer, while out on the August call, said the arson division has new equipment, staff and its investigators are getting to more fire scenes and making more determinations on the causes.

"Now that we have more resources and more time, we're focusing on issues," he said. "Our job descriptions in terms of the types of fires and the types of situations that we go to have greatly expanded and our capabilities have greatly expanded. We are receiving a lot more training. We're able to close things out better."

Mayer said once the team responds to a fire call, it conducts an investigation and makes a determination. The investigators then prepare a report that's passed along to the unit's police department counterparts to pursue criminal charges, he said.

"They will process the warrant and carry it down to the prosecutor," said Mayer, adding the unit, however, "has no control over whether it's prosecuted."

Arson, he said, can be a challenging crime to prosecute. 

"Only because we as investigators speak for the victim of a piece of property," he said. "Prosecutors are more willing to prosecute a crime with a live, breathing victim attached."

Davidson, a 23-year veteran, said he's encouraged by the direction the department is heading in, especially the arson unit. 

The arson unit has grown but based on the caseload, it needs more investigators. At its height, the unit had close to two dozen. Today, "we're still down quite a few," he said. 

The administration, he, said, is mandating the division address every fire that occurs within the city limits. 

"We've taken that task on," he said. "But we still need more bodies to fully address that."

Detroit remains among the most arson-plagued large cities in America. Only Los Angeles reported more arson fires in 2017 to the FBI.

But McNulty said the burden is easing some. Cases assigned to the arson division for investigation in 2018 were down 12 percent from the year prior, he said. 

"That's the trend I'm seeing," he said. "Just in cases we're assigning."

​​​​​​'Less to burn'

Officials say the decrease in structures fires is tied to an increase in demolitions and boarding of vacant structures. Community awareness and involvement and the swift response of the fire department's arson unit also are helping.

The fire department provided data that showed the impact of demolitions. Major reductions in fires are seen in southwest and northeast sections of the city, but fire officials contend the decline is happening across the board. 

The arson squad's McNulty said southwest Detroit has historically been a tough area for fires in the city. Decreases in those areas, he said, have been significant with the volume of demolitions.

Northeast Detroit, McNulty added, "has always been a hot zone and still continues to be one of the busiest areas."

Areas with the least decline are areas that were the most stable to begin with, such as the city's Midtown, officials noted. 

"When a home is demolished that is less fuel for arsonists to use to commit their crimes. It's showing a significant effect," Jones said. "Guys going to the same places repeated times, over and over again. Day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, you end up in the 4,000s. With those houses out of the equation, the numbers are declining (repeat fires are going down)."

Jones credited the department's community relations division for fire prevention efforts by engaging churches and neighborhood groups about fire safety. The department also has allocated more resources to its fire inspection operation, he said. 

The department operates 46 fire companies with 27 engines, 13 ladder trucks and six squads. Of the city's 821 firefighters, 184 are on duty every day — 193 including battalion chiefs — and they work 24-hour shifts. 

The average response time in Detroit is six minutes and 38 seconds for fire and medical response is around eight minutes, Jones said. 

Response times often differ from community to community based on variations in how fire departments record alarm times and arrival times, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. 

But Nevin countered he doesn't believe the city's fire response is on par with other major cities.

"I can say that with all confidence," he said.

'Still a fire every day'

Firefighter Cartier Harris drives the ladder truck out of the 8th Battalion on the west side.

The Detroiter said when she started several years ago, the fire company would sometimes respond to three or four fire runs in a day.

"It was endless. Now, it has calmed down," she said. "I feel like the city is coming back. But there's still a fire every day because it's a big city. There's always something happening."

Westside Battalion Chief Mike Jefferson has spent 30 of his 35 years with the department working out of the firehouse near Seven Mile and John R. 

From his estimation, the volume of fire runs there has remained consistent and about 60 to 70 percent of the blazes that his crews respond to are in vacant properties.

“Every day I go to work, I go to fires. There’s not a 24-hour shift that we come to work that we don’t go to at least two or three structure fires,” said Jefferson, noting upward of 100 vacant houses in a single square mile. “It hasn’t changed. It’s always been busy over here.”

Most of the demolitions in Detroit are funded with federal hardest-hit dollars. The city has been awarded about $258 million under the program, facilitated by the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Detroit Building Authority. But the program is currently the focus of a federal criminal investigation amid concerns over bidding practices and rising costs. 

The federal demolition funding must be spent by 2020, but Jones said he's not worried about the end of the program. He's confident that other dollars will come through to continue the tear-downs. 

"I have thought about it, but I know those things come and go, and that there's going to be funding to continue whether it's public funding, taxpayer money, private funding, foundation money, there's going to be money to continue with reducing blight," he said. "We're going to continue to provide citizens with the service they have come to expect."

An east side neighborhood about six blocks from Detroit's City Airport has seen fewer fires within the last year. Prior to that, it was a troubling issue for neighbors, said Karen Chava Knox, president of the Eden Gardens Block Club.

When she's heard fire trucks in the past, Knox said she's been "very frustrated and angry."

"I don't know how they are going about the percentage, but we have had quite a few houses burned up over here," said Knox, adding the community has been working hard to rejuvenate the area, cut overgrown grass and board vacant properties. 

"The bigger issue to me now is the blighted property and the burned houses that are still standing. That's a major problem."

cferretti@detroitnews.com

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