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Detroit mayor calls fires 'natural disaster,' defends response

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Dozens of homes burned in Detroit
  • He defends fire department response, staffing
  • The fire department responded to 140 calls for wires down
  • 85 fires were reported across Detroit over a four-hour period
  • Detroit
  • Fires
  • Michigan

(CNN) -- Detroit Mayor David Bing called Tuesday's 85 fires in the city a "natural disaster" and defended the fire department's response.

"I have ultimate confidence in the Detroit Fire Department," he said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "I think they've done an outstanding job."

Asked whether the department was adequately staffed or had enough equipment Tuesday, Bing said the important thing was that no one was hurt or killed.

"I don't care how much money you have. When something like this happens, all you can do is respond," he said.

Fire Commissioner James Mack Jr. said the department is budgeted for about 500 firefighters, about 20 fewer positions than last year. About 236 firefighters fought Tuesday's fires across much of the city and took no breaks, Mack added.

The inferno was a perfect storm, and was aggravated by high winds and downed power lines, the officials said.

"It just created a firestorm where we had fires," the fire commissioner said, adding that at least eight of the fires were linked to downed power lines and two to arson, though he said those numbers may change.

He said response times might have been slow because of the volume of calls and officials having to prioritize the fires, especially if some were at vacant residences.

Monday morning quarterbacking of resources is always easy to do, Mack said. "I have to balance safety of public and the monies the department has."

CNN iReporter Joe Wilk, who recorded video of flames and their charred aftermath Tuesday and Wednesday, said that one fire spread to about 10 homes in an hour.

"It's pretty tragic. How many people just lost their houses and everything they own?" he asked.

A woman told him that firefighters didn't arrive for an hour to fight the fire, which also destroyed garages.

"A lot of these fires were due to high winds and downed wires," said Karen Dumas, a city spokeswoman.

"We had winds from 30 to 50 mph and have a number of downed power wires," Mack said. "We are attributing some of the fires to downed power wires, which makes more fires with the wind being so strong."

Mack said that between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., the fire department responded to 140 calls of wires down before the evening outbreak.

Fire officials said Wednesday that there were still hot spots and downed power lines in the city.

Fire departments in the neighboring towns of Warren, Dearborn and Harper Woods helped Detroit firefighters. Mack said perhaps he should have asked for help earlier.

"It's a matter of public safety," Dumas said. "We have enough resources to manage our daily demands, but that was an unusual and concentrated number of fires."

City officials say they will be communicating with DTE Energy about its response to downed power lines.

Bing said he was heartened by the community response.

"I want to thank the residents who came and did what they needed to do," the mayor said. "That's one of the cultural changes we are starting to see here in the city. I think our community understands we are all in this together."