Wind gusts of up to 50 mph that downed power lines and low humidity fueled the flames of at least 85 fires throughout the city.
Power was out for 36,000 customers in the region, according to DTE Energy.
The arid conditions combined with high winds were cited for at least 85 reported fires in a four-hour period Tuesday afternoon, city officials said.
“There’s no fire bug here,” said Detroit Fire Department Capt. Steve Varnas surveying the damage from a blaze in the area of Van Dyke and 7 Mile that had claimed at least 17 structures. “Throughout the whole city, the same thing is happening: Wires down every where.”
High winds were causing dead limbs to fall from trees, knocking down the wires which have been igniting, Varnas said.
About 20 structures were reported burning in the area of Quinn Street near 7 Mile and Van Dyke on the city’s east side and spread over three side streets. Fires also have been reported at other locations on the city’s east side, including McClellan and Berry and McClellan at Murray.
Detroit Fire Chief Gregory Williams said today was one of the worst days for fires he’s seen in the 36 1/2 years he’s been with the department.
“I haven’t had anything like this in 20 years,” he said regarding the fires in the city.
Williams said firefighters got the call to come to the Van Dyke area at 5:20 p.m. and had the blazes there confined by about 8 p.m. He agreed that the fires appeared to be caused by downed electrical wires from the high winds.
Williams said the sheer number of fires had stretched the department’s resources to the limit.
As fires spread out of control late this afternoon, the Detroit Fire Department requested aid around 6 p.m. from the Warren Fire Department — an almost unprecedented request, Detroit Fire Capt. Dan McNamara said.
“We’ve never really been in the situation of needing significant help since the civil disturbances” during the riots of 1967, McNamara said. The city asked Warren to send aid to fires raging near 7 Mile and Van Dyke, said McNamara, a 33-year veteran who is union president of the Detroit Firefighters Association.
“You get to the point where you’re not able to do what you’re supposed to do,” McNamara said.
McNamara said they don’t have enough fire companies to respond. “We’ve had aid before, just to help out in a specific area, but this time is different. We don’t have anyone available. … It used to be we could throw enough resources to knock something big down and work our way into it. The day of reckoning has come.”
Though the city does not have enough fire trucks, McNamara said the main thing is the city doesn’t have the firefighters to staff them. Eight or nine fire companies of 65 are shut each day, he said.
“And it’s not an anomaly just because there’s a windstorm,” he emphasized. “We’ve had every kind of storm in history. This is a major embarrassment. I just hope nobody gets hurt.”
McNamara said the firefighters’ union has been telling the city since the beginning of the decade that the department does not have enough companies and enough firefighters. He said he believes Mayor Dave Bing is doing the best he can, but noted that “the piper’s gotta be paid someday.”