Image: Homes destroyed by fires
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Wind-whipped flames swept through at least three Detroit neighborhoods on Tuesday, destroying dozens of homes, including many that were vacant, officials said.
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updated 9/9/2010 5:14:44 PM ET 2010-09-09T21:14:44

Toni Booker considered herself fortunate on Thursday as she inspected the damage to her wooden bungalow caused by urban wildfires that swept through Detroit this week, destroying dozens of homes.

Despite being in the middle of one of Tuesday night's wind-fed fires, her home escaped the blazes 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."

At least 85 structures, some of them 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.

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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.

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

Story: Wind-whipped fires add to Detroit's economic woes

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

Detroit is a city beset with its share of 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.

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.

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Even before this week's fires, some streets, like the one that Booker's house is on the east side of the city, had more vacant houses and empty lots than occupied homes.

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.

Booker hopes the now-burned house just to the east of her house and the half-dozen to the west will be torn down soon.

"I was here when all the houses were lived in. This was the first house I bought," she said. "I just want to know, will they leave it like this?"

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.

Once electricity, water and other utilities have been shut off, they will be torn down. Three houses likely will come down Friday, Henderson said.

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 process is expected to take up to 18 months, Bing said in a two-minute presentation aired Wednesday evening on local television and radio stations.

He said many consider the abandoned houses and vacant land "the largest obstacle" facing the city.

"Our neighborhoods are suffering, and this is prime example of how our citizens have to suffer due to abandoned properties," she said of the Tuesday's fiery aftermath. "Vacant properties sit there and become targets. They invite these types of situations."

The city hopes to clean up the areas hit by the fires. Grants and federal funding will be sought out to help support new construction to replace burned down houses in more stable neighborhoods, Henderson added.

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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