Detroit Burns

Lisa Waugh

“Burning down a city, one building at a time…” This is one of the many lines in Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit. Detroit is being burnt down to ash on a daily/nightly basis as abandoned houses and commercial property go up in flames.

“It’s like Katrina without the hurricane.”

The men and women on the frontline of this modern day Rome are Detroit’s firefighters, working on marginal budgets with aging gear and battered fire trucks. And an incoming fire commissioner who decides to let unoccupied buildings burn.

He’s not off base.

As Detroit’s population went from 1.8 million to 780,000 in less than a decade, the once gleaming city has now become a tragic tale of an American city gone to hell. In 2009, documentarians – with Denis Leary as executive producer – spent the year watching beleaguered firefighters tackle two to 3 fires a day in a city of 80,000 abandoned buildings.

The structures burn due to arson for profit, arson for revenge and just because. As one firefighter says, “A gallon of gas is still cheaper than a movie ticket.” And he would know, he lives in the same neighborhood where fires are a regular thing.

The film documents incoming Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, a veteran of the Los Angeles fire department. But even he can’t believe the onslaught of nightly alarms, missing equipment and a budget that is not near enough to keep the city from burning to the ground. Austin submitted his resignation this month.

In the film, Austin is tough on the guys and seems focused on the budget, almost too much. He has to make some pretty serious cuts and then sees the end result of those cuts. A 7-year old girl dies because only a tactical unit was sent to the fire in her home. The TAC truck is not designed to fight fire and is used for carrying personnel.

Fascinating and tragic, Detroit could be any American city after industry is killed off and the unemployed rate is 29%. Just look up Camden, New Jersey.

When the credits roll, you’ll probably say, “Fuck.” Just like I did.



Watched on Netflix Streaming