Why Would People Set Fire to Their Own City? 'Burn'

by Cynthia Fuchs

3 December 2012

As powerful as Burn's images can be, the Detroit firefighters tell their own stories about what's important to them, their neighborhood connections, their family legacies, their pride in their fellows and in their community.

The Fire Load

cover art


Director: Tom Putnam, Brenna Sanchez
Cast: Dave Parnell, Craig Dougherty, Brendan "Doogie" Milewski, Dennis Hunter, Jeff Urbas, Donald Austin, Angie Milewski

(TBVE, Apostle, and Area 23a)
US theatrical: 7 Dec 2012 (Limited release)

“This is my neighborhood, this is where I live, this is where I fight my fires,” says Dave Parnell. He’s driving a car now, as the camera glides past brick homes and snowy lawns, but on the job, he drives a fire truck for Engine Co. 50. He’s been doing it for 33 years, he explains at the start of Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, and the job and the place are different now. “You used to could walk in this neighborhood, but now, you’re pretty much afraid to walk to the corner.” The frame shows broken windows and collapsed roofs. “That was a fire job right there,” he points out, “you can tell by the soot that was in the front of the dwelling.”

Dave’s about to retire. He’s ready and also not, he jokes, for this particular change. For him, as for so many firefighters, the job is not only that. “If you live in the community in which you work, how do you not do something for the people that are around you?” he asks, “You try to have the opportunity to make change.” Increasingly, the film shows, finding that opportunity is difficult. With the failing economy and people moving out, more and more of Detroit’s neighborhoods look like Dave’s. As Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s film points out, the city is now contending with some 80,000 abandoned homes, and many fall prey to fire, whether by accident or by arson (the city has earned the designation, “Arson Capital of America “). Fireman Dennis Hunter says, “It kind of hurts me, to see the city getting destroyed like this, I feel like I’m in the burning of Rome sometimes.”

The film looks at the sometimes tragic costs of firefighting, specifically in the case of Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, who joined the department when he was just 20 years old. “A lot of times people compare being a firefighter to being a member of a social club,” he smiles, “They might be on to something.” Since Doogie was left paralyzed by a collapsed building. He spends less time with the guys. The film introduces his situation just after a segment where the team is boasting about their aggressive firefighting style, where they head inside buildings instead of only hitting them with hoses from the outside. “When we fight fires, you see water shooting out,” says Dave. Now in a wheelchair, Doogie laments that they might have done things differently that day; even still, he keeps at his multiple therapies and hopes against hope that someday he’ll walk again: after all, he observes, his doctor was once quadriplegic, and now he has use of his upper body.

Doogie’s hopefulness provides some contrast but also something of a poignant metaphor for the film’s other focus, namely, the multiple effects of Detroit’s economic and social declines. Devastating montages of empty apartment buildings and houses, garbage and furniture piled high in front of them, are set alongside the experiences of firefighters charged with solving a specific consequence. “It’s called fire load,” says Doogie, “There’s more things to burn.” The blight is a function of poverty, certainly, as well as crime, illiteracy, and chronic disenfranchisement. “High murder rate, high infant mortality rate,” says Captain Craig Dougherty. “Crimes that you never thought in a million years would happen in your neighborhood.”

These losses are compounded by shrinking budgets: as schools and the fire and police departments lose resources, they can’t maintain their facilities or equipment, compensate their employees: most of the firefighters, who include increasing numbers of women, get into the business because their fathers or uncles were firemen, but also have to work second or third jobs to support their families. Broken (or nonexistent) equipment means the firefighters lack the very tools they need to do their work. Burn notes as well the struggle by the Detroit Firefighters Association to hang onto pensions, health care, and schedules. “When did we become the enemy?” asks the captain, accused of “costing too much.” Overwhelmed, the city brings in a new commissioner Don Austin, and charges him with cutting still more costs (“I ain’t here to make friends,” he points out, quite unnecessarily).

The movie follows the controversy emerging from one of Austin’s ideas, namely, to let abandoned buildings burn. While at least some of the rationale seems plain—the buildings will be torn down anyway, and the fires are controlled, so as not to expand—firefighters worry that structures that appear empty are not. You never know where squatters might be hiding, illustrated when, during the winter, they find one man in a burning building, frightened and frostbitten. The risks are real, and so are the austerity decrees.

As he copes with these and other demands, Austin meets with administrators (“We’re just managing misery”), speaks to TV reporters, and wonders at the duct tape holding some fire engines together. The firefighters at Company 50 see his concerns, but they have their own. As conditions worsen, you wonder what makes these workers persist. As powerful as the movie can be—with its vivid footage of fires and intimate glimpses of relationships—the firefighters embody and articulate what’s important to them, their neighborhood connections, their family legacies, their pride in their fellows and in their community.



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