Cash-Strapped Detroit Struggles to Stem Fires

September 22, 2010

Blazes that gutted more than two dozen homes across Detroit and pushed firefighters to their limits underscore the cash-strapped city’s need for outside help, according to a state lawmaker running for Congress.

Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, met with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials in Washington and asked them to award the city a grant to hire 72 more firefighters. He also requested funding for equipment to make the city prepared in case of another emergency, such as the fire storm that raged city streets on Sept. 7.

“Many firefighters are older and set to retire, and we’ve got this large land mass and burned out buildings … and FEMA understands that,” Clarke said. “They understand that we have acres of burned out, blighted buildings that pose a greater fire hazard.”

Clarke’s Republican opponent, businessman John Hauler, said Clarke’s request amounts to a “Band-Aid aid on a bullet wound” and ignores Detroit’s need for a strong economic stimulus.

More than 230 Detroit firefighters responded to the Sept. 7 blazes, but they had difficulty stopping the spread of the wind-fed fires. The fires destroyed 29 occupied homes and damaged 71 vacant homes and garages.

As fire crews responded to one blaze, others popped up blocks or miles away.

Some of the fires were started when 50 mph winds caused trees and branches to fall onto power lines. Sparking wires are believed to have set dry rooftops and foliage ablaze. Two of the fires were being blamed on arson.

No injuries were reported.

The city already has applied for FEMA grants. Clarke said he wants to make sure those requests get the agency’s full attention.

The grant for the extra firefighters is for about $11 million, Clarke said.

Detroit has little cash of its own to improve fire services or hire more manpower. The city’s is facing a budget deficit of at least $85 million.

The city is using federal stimulus dollars to tear down 3,000 of its 33,000 empty houses this year and another 3,000 next year.

Hauler, a Grosse Pointe Woods businessman running against Clarke in the heavily Democratic 13th Congressional District, said Detroit residents “want real, actionable solutions that are homegrown and self-sustaining.”

He said his proposal to turn Detroit into a 10-year federal income tax free zone would stimulate economic recovery and help the city pay for its own municipal services.

“The taxpayer base will allow us to address the blighted homes, fix the hazardous utility environment, and provide our first responders with the tools and personnel they need to protect our city,” Hauler said.

Associated Press Writer David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this report.

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