Image: A Detroit firefighter looks through the smoldering yards of burned homes and garages
REBECCA COOK  /  Reuters
A Detroit firefighter looks through the smoldering yards of burned homes and garages on East Robinwood in Detroit, Michigan Sept. 8. Dozens of fires swept across Detroit Tuesday night, fanned by high winds and downed power lines with as many as 20 of the fires on East Robinwood and adjacent streets.
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updated 9/8/2010 7:13:49 PM ET 2010-09-08T23:13:49

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.

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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.

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"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.

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"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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Detroit battles 85 blazes in four hours

  1. Transcript of: Detroit battles 85 blazes in four hours

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The city of Detroit did not need what happened there last night. In the past few decades they've survived riots, urban blight, a deep plunge in the car business, always fighting though to keep Detroit alive. Then last night a fire started. It combined with a wind storm and seemed to spread through the air. There was no way the city's already stressed fire department , or any big fire department for that matter, could have kept up with this. Our report tonight from NBC 's Kevin Tibbles , who is with us from Detroit . Kevin , good evening.

    KEVIN TIBBLES reporting: Good evening, Brian . When the winds hit Detroit last night, they set off a firestorm that threatened to consume entire neighborhoods. Along this street alone, four houses burned before the fire department even got here. In just a few hours the Detroit fire department was confronted with 85 buildings burning out of control. Many of them abandoned homes and other vacant structures in sections of the Motor City hit hard by the struggling economy. Eight of the fires started when power lines were downed by heavy sustained winds. The flames whipped by strong gusts up to 50 miles per hour, sending plumes of smoke into the air.

    Unidentified Woman #1: It was chaos. Seemed like they couldn't get it under control.

    TIBBLES: Many tender dry adjoining structures caught fire from the flying sparks.

    Unidentified Woman #2: But I've never seen fire move like that. I mean, you couldn't see. It was so much smoke over here just looked like debris from a tornado.

    TIBBLES: Today, Detroit 's mayor praised the Motor City 's first responders.

    Mayor DAVE BING (Democrat, Detroit): They just did a yeoman's job under some terrible, terrible conditions to make sure that there was no loss of life.

    TIBBLES: Hundreds of firefighters responded, many from the suburbs, called in for the first time since the 1967 riots here. Today there is criticism Detroit 's emergency services have been cut too thin.

    Woman #2: The fire department got here too late. They got here late.

    TIBBLES: These fires just another blow to a still proud city that has seen more than its share of setbacks.

    Ms. CARMEN HARLAN (WDIV-TV): Let's hope that this is the bottom. That the bottom is where we are now, and the only place that we can look now is upward.

    TIBBLES: For many who last night watched in horror, hope for something better is still a long way off. And, Brian , today the mayor bristled at the suggestion that budget cuts were putting lives at risk. He says what happened here was a natural disaster.

    Brian: As we said, that city sure didn't need it. Kevin Tibbles with us from Detroit tonight. Kevin , thanks for your

    WILLIAMS:

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