Possible causes of fires emerge

Numerous fires swept through Detroit neighborhoods last Tuesday after winds knocked down more than 700 power lines. While luckily no one was killed, some 85 houses, garages and other structures were consumed in the blazes.

On Wednesday, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing described the fires as a “natural disaster” which could neither have been predicted nor planned for. This is a stretch that seeks not only to shelter energy giant DTE – which owns and operates Detroit’s power grid – but also to deflect criticism away from his own role in decimating essential city services.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, DTE has made $315 million in the first half of this year. The company’s CEO, Anthony Earley, took home $9.2 million last year. These profits are predicated on a campaign of cost cutting that has caused the infrastructure to deteriorate to unsafe levels.

Moreover, while the energy giant makes millions for its investors, it routinely dehumanizes hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents each year by disconnecting their utilities for lack of payment. In attempting to escape these semi-barbaric conditions, residents are forced to heat and light their homes through unsafe means that results in dozens of deadly house fires each year.

In just the first seven months of this year, 237,000 households in Michigan have had their utilities cut off. This is up from a total of 142,000 and 221,000 in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Reports have come out which expose Bing’s account of Tuesday’s disaster for what it is: a cover-up. Residents on Robinwood Street – where one of the largest of the fires consumed more than a dozen homes – reported they had been calling DTE in vain for at least five days prior to the fire about a transformer which had been sparking. This was apparently the source of the blaze in that area.

Bing has good reason to intervene on behalf of DTE. He not only sat on the company’s board of directors for twenty years (1985-2005), his inaugural committee was co-chaired by Mr. Earley and his wife.

Moreover, Bing himself is no less culpable. The Detroit Fire Department was completely overwhelmed by Tuesday’s fires, having to call in help from surrounding cities for the first time since the 1967 riots. Despite this, Bing cynically remarked at his press conference, “There are a lot of people who are naysayers who say, ‘You don’t have enough equipment; you don’t have enough people.’ ”

When the understaffed fire department was delayed in responding to one fire, area residents told of how they ran to the nearby fire station only to find it was one of the 8-12 fire companies in the city that were temporarily decommissioned.

According to Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Daniel McNamara, the DFD is 200 to 300 firefighters short to adequately protect the population. Over the past six years alone, the force has been reduced from 1,300 to fewer than 500.

Implicated in the whole affair is the Democratic Party, which has overseen the dismantling – and outright destruction – of Detroit for decades.

Consequently, outrage over the fires has been channeled through the Committee Against Utility Shutoffs initiated earlier this year by the Socialist Equality Party.

At its press conference Friday, CAUS member Larry Porter called for “an independent inquiry of Detroit area citizens to investigate the fires and determine who is responsible.”

As the student arm of the SEP, the International Students for Social Equality (ISSE) at EMU has participated in the work of CAUS, including visiting neighborhoods to talk to residents and organizing public meetings. All those interested in opposing a whitewash of last Tuesday’s disaster by the Bing administration and contributing to the inquiry should join the ISSE and get involved in CAUS.


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