Fornell: It Rained, They Burned - Devil's Night 2013

The scene on Detroit's Beals Street the night before Halloween was typical.

Steam floated off a firefighter's gear, wet from a previous fire hours ago, as he worked a 2-1/2-inch line by himself, trying to keep rolling fire in a vacant building from taking the occupied house next to it.  Welcome to Devil's Night 2013.

It rained off and on this year, but it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of those who come to the Motor City the night before Halloween to observe and for some, participate in the annual ritual of burning buildings.

The city fathers who still try to put a positive spin on the activity, now stand in threadbare suits as a judge prepares to rule on whether the city can file a Chapter 9 bankruptcy, shedding previous administrations debts, and all but wiping out firefighters' pensions and healthcare provisions in the process. 

A few years ago, they tried to change the name to Angel's Night but the name caught on with only groups of the city's cheerleaders. To Detroit firefighters and those who come to watch them, it's still Devil's Night. 

This year, the city touted the large number of volunteer fire watchers, wearing orange Angel's Night tee shirts and who patrol the city in their cars equipped with blinking yellow lights. 

They certainly missed the person who lit up the Beals Street job, and congregated afterward at a neighborhood headquarters where they were consoled with hot dogs and hot drinks, one of many spots paid for by the city that night to help support their efforts.

The anguish of a man, feeling the intense heat of a fire in three vacant buildings on Lillybridge Street was caught on camera as he watched to see if his house across the street would be the next victim.  It took a while for companies to arrive at this inferno. Arsonists set another fire just before around the corner, and the number of closed firehouses in the area required responses from much farther away.

Historians tell us that the origins of Devil's Night in the 80's were because of civil unrest and protest. In those days, there would be upwards of 800 fires in the three days surrounding Halloween with hundreds of fire buffs and newspersons flocking to Detroit to watch and report on the spectacle.

Over the years, like a lake shore amusement park seeing better days behind it and eventually closing, the fires themselves dwindled and eventually, as the money and jobs in the Motor City ran out, Devil's Night has become just a shadow of its former self.

The city still likes to think that the drama still exists.  Hundreds of police officers drawn to the city to help Detroit's finest, show a rag-tag, casual-combat presence meant to deter would-be arsonists.

At the Lillybridge fire, around 20 officers had little to do but tell the fire buffs to move back.  On Beals Street, officers from Detroit along with those from ATF, Customs and even Homeland Security Police (what do they do?) surrounded the building and watched as the roof burned away so the ladder pipe could its job.

City officials touted the increased police presence as keeping the number of arson fires at a low level, but the fact remains that even with the influx of hundreds of cops, no one was arrested this year for starting a fire. 

You would think that someone in the city administration would had the foresight to spend that overtime money on bringing in extra firefighters. 

When the overtime money ran out, all the extra help went home. 

An early morning fire on Maxwell Street had a 2-1/2 story building going throughout.  No yellow blinky lights or combat-ready government troops -- just a single Detroit police car stopped by and then left when things got boring.  Nor were they needed.  The buff photographers who stopped by were well mannered and did not need corralling.

With the city's economic cutbacks over the past few years, an average Detroit firefighter now takes home about $800 every two weeks, and if they stay around, their average pension will be around $30,000 after 25 years.  You can see why they get a bit cranky when buff photos posted on the internet are pulled off by fire officials and used to try to discipline firefighters who may have forgotten to wear their gloves or pump operators who are not dressed in full fire gear.

But yet, they come to work each duty day, lay their ragged gear on the rigs and go to work at what they think is the greatest job in the world.  Of course, they bitch in the firehouse and all are worried about what the upcoming bankruptcy will bring, but their pride in the job and determination to make things work is the same as found in busy firehouses across the country.

On Friday, Mayor Dave Bing announced that there were 95 fires over the three-day Halloween period.  He did not specify if these included non-suspicious fires, minor cooking fires, trash fires and vehicle fires, and most insiders suspect they didn't.

Keep in mind that the sale of gas in containers is banned during the period, kids under 17 have an overnight curfew, hundreds of extra volunteers and police officers are patrolling the streets and yet, the fires raged unabated.

Maybe it's time for everyone to realize that while many mark Devil's Night on their calendars as a high point in the firefighting year, it has really evolved into nothing special for Detroit firefighters.

The mayor said it best when congratulating the volunteers afterward. He said that the number of fires over the Halloween period were the about the same as the numbers in 2011 and 2012 but, the number of fires are not much different from a typical day.

Mayor Bing simply reinforced what the firefighters have been saying all along -- in Detroit, Devil's Night is just like any other night.

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