By Vickie Thomas

DETROIT (WWJ) – It was a year ago Wednesday that a firestorm swept through an eastside Detroit neighborhood and destroyed 85 homes. Falling utility lines, high winds and dry weather were blamed for the fast-moving inferno, but miraculously, no one was killed.

WWJ City Beat Reporter Vickie Thomas revisited the neighborhood, which looks much the same today as it did after those homes burned down.

Ernest Collwin said he rushed home from work a year ago to see part of his neighborhood go up in flames.

“Smoke and flames, that was it, smoke and flames. Trees was on fire, houses was on fire, everything was on fire,” he said.

Grass has now grown over on the lots where homes once stood. A charred tree trunk with three of its branches still in tact, but not a single leaf or greenery on it, stands in what used to be a backyard of a home on Robinwood Street off Van Dyke.

“It’s an eerie sight too because there are more vacant homes than occupied homes. I drove down the block and took inventory and on this block, there are only five occupied homes compared to 12 vacant homes. And about half of them are wide open, stripped down and dangerous. There are also still signs of that fire, with melted siding on one of the homes and you can see where smoke and fire charred the area just above the front window and door of another vacant house,” she said.

Collwin lives a block over from Robinwood Street, and can’t help but shake his head at all the vacant properties.

“Six houses that people live in on this street. I told my brother the other day that our street is going to look like that in a minute if we just keep letting people come in a tear stuff up. But they really need to get them people who are stripping it. These houses are good houses, it’s just the people going in and taking stuff out that don’t belong to them,” he said.

In remembering the disaster, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recognized that people were affected in a negative way and that the city needs to continue to improve how they respond to such emergencies.

“Detroit is very, very lucky to have this kind of leadership from a preparation standpoint because these are true professionals that know their business, but probably even more importantly, they care about people, they care about folks in the neighborhood here,” Bing said.

Detroit native Donald Austin was hired as the new Fire Commissioner in May. He brings 30 years experience in fire services and homeland security.

“Working with DTE, working with our fire dept and others, we’re hopeful that won’t happen again. But if in fact it does, because now from a leadership standpoint, we have somebody here with the capability and capacity to think differently than we have previously.”

Mayor Bing says he is comfortable with the people in charge of the city’s fire response to disasters and other emergencies.


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