More Than 1,600 Arsons Scar Michigan City’s Landscape

By DOMINIC ADAMS | April 3, 2013

William Iser waits and wonders: Will his home be next?

He watched as his street slowly became a shell of what it was. Firefighters were called to Dakota Street 31 times in five years to battle fires set in nearby vacant homes.

There is almost nothing left of the neighborhood, except fields where homes once stood and the lucky few remaining.

“That’s the thing that kind of upsets me is that it seems to be a crime that’s OK,” Iser told The Flint Journal.

Flint is burning.

And has been for several years.

With no signs of slowing.

The city leads the nation in per capita arsons, among cities with populations of 100,000 or more. The city has held the dubious No. 1 ranking for arsons for two years and it appears destined to retain the crown for a third year based on the 352 suspicious fires recorded in 2012.

It’s even worse than those startling statistics imply, though.

Second place went to Toledo – and our arson rate is more than 50 percent higher. We also logged more than 100 more arsons than Baton Rouge, La., despite that city being more than twice as populous as Flint.

A Flint Journal analysis shows there were 1,631 fires to vacant buildings from 2008-2012 – fires that in some cases aren’t included in the city’s overall arson tallies if they aren’t investigated by police.

“It has really destroyed the fabric of the communities,” said the Genesee County Historical Society’s Dave White.

Fires have become an everyday occurrence and have reshaped the landscape of several neighborhoods, especially the east side. Jane Avenue has been the hardest hit with 46 suspicious vacant fires in the last five years.

“They burned the whole one side of Jane,” said Christina Brackins, who lives on Dakota Avenue. “It’s nothing but fields now.”

There is a certain ferociousness – or determination, perhaps – to these fires.

More than 400 vacant homes burned more than once, according to the MLive-Flint Journal analysis of Flint Fire Department records. One on West Second Avenue burned nine times before it was finally razed last year.

“When we were dispatched to certain addresses we would just shake our heads,” said recently retired Battalion Chief Andy Graves. “Many times these repeated fires at the same location also repeatedly threatened neighboring occupied homes.”

The problem has gotten so bad that the city developed a policy for fighting fires inside vacant buildings. If there isn’t anyone inside, firefighters essentially just let the home burn – working only to prevent the fire from spreading to other homes or property.

In a city where 26 percent of its housing stock is vacant, Flint officials have a list of properties for demolition but residents have no guarantees how long a torched house will stand after a fire.

City officials said houses on its demolition list are ranked according to how threatening they are.

“Priority is given to which houses pose the biggest risk to public safety,” city spokesman Jason Lorenz said.

It’s not just vacant homes that is being destroyed. It is whole neighborhoods, even a part of the city’s history.

Schools, churches, businesses and mansions have been destroyed, leaving ugly scars for the remaining neighbors.

The 36-room Jackson-Hardy house – a 3,500 square-foot, three story Queen Anne-style mansion that served as the Garland Hotel in the 1960s in Carriage Town – was destroyed by a suspicious fire just days before it was to undergo extensive renovations three years ago.

“An awful lot of people sat there crying,” Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association President Tim Monahan said of the fire. “A lot of people just loved that house.”

The loss of buildings makes it difficult to remember the prominence that Flint once held in the nation’s economy, said White.

“There’s not going to be any indication of how great we were of an automotive industry,” White said. “Unless somebody goes to a history book they won’t know what Flint was like.”

Three years ago, the city’s oldest school building – Homedale Elementary on the city’s east side – fell victim to arsonists.

“It was a community icon,” said Kevin Watkins, who started school there in 1969.

Today, it’s a vacant lot.

The arson problem has been a difficult one for the city to get a handle on.

In the same span that the city logged 1,631 suspicious fires to vacants, just 135 arson-related charges were filed in Flint District Court.

“Arson cases are difficult because it’s rare that anyone sees who sets the fire,” said Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton.

Amid the city’s financial troubles that have resulted in fire and police layoffs and the state takeover, the city has watched the number of full-time arson investigators drop from three to one.

Cincinnati, by comparison, has eight arson investigators despite its population being less than three-times that of Flint.

Flint police Chief Alvern Lock said his department is making do with the resources it has.

“Whether it’s adequate or not, that’s what we’ve got,” said Lock. “If you ask me, ‘Do I want more arson investigators?’ I will tell you, ‘Yes.”‘

In the meantime, the continued fires drive down already depressed property values and create fear for residents like Iser who waits to see if the next blaze will spread to his home.

“You just kind of get stuck here,” said Iser. “he last man on the island.”

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