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Fire Rampant in Detroit for Devil's Night : Arson: Despite a crackdown, hundreds of homes and abandoned buildings are torched.

November 01, 1989|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Firefighters got some relief Tuesday night when an outbreak of arson declined, a day after a massive anti-crime effort by an estimated 30,000 firefighters, police officers and volunteers failed to prevent hundreds of houses and abandoned buildings from being set ablaze throughout Detroit during the annual Devil's Night arson spree.

Fifty-one juveniles were arrested for ignoring a curfew Tuesday, the last night in the three-day arson outbreak that left at least 10 families homeless.

Every year on the night before Halloween, Detroit's poorest neighborhoods gird for arson attacks. This year's seem to have been particularly bad, despite an outpouring of citizen involvement in an effort to stamp out the practice.

Although official figures weren't available Tuesday, it appeared that roughly twice as many fires were set as during the same time period last year.

Unofficial estimates placed the total for both Sunday and Monday at 460; by contrast, Detroit officials said that in 1988 the city counted 229 fires in a three-day period from Oct. 29 through Oct. 31. Few fires were reported Tuesday night.

In a normal 24-hour period, the Detroit Fire Department responds to about 65 fires, officials said.

Bob Berg, a spokesman for Mayor Coleman Young, said the fire count "may be a bit more" than in 1988 but that city officials were still sifting through reports to develop an official count.

The fires raged in spite of a 6 p.m. curfew for juveniles. The 51 arrests Tuesday brought the three-day arrest total to 385, Detroit police officials said.

Devil's Night arson first became a major problem for Detroit in 1983, when 650 fires were reported, as vacant buildings throughout the city were torched. After the 1984 Devil's Night, when the arson spree peaked at 810 fires, city officials mounted a massive campaign to curb the destruction in subsequent years. It had been largely successful in reducing the arson each year, until this week.

The troubling increase in Devil's Night arson occurs in the midst of a mayoral election campaign in Detroit that pits Young, a 16-year incumbent seeking an unprecedented fifth term, against Tom Barrow, a politically inexperienced businessman and nephew of boxing great Joe Louis.

Barrow, who won the right to challenge Young by defeating several better-known candidates in a September primary, was quick to criticize the mayor's handling of the arson crisis.

Barrow charged that the rise in Devil's Night fires represented a "failure of leadership" by Young. He added that Young is a "weak role model for Detroit's youth, who have challenged his leadership of the streets by setting Devil's Night fires and defying the curfew."

But the arson spree is unlikely to change the outcome of next Tuesday's election, which Young is widely expected to win.

Most political analysts here believed that the only serious challenge to Young could have come from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who entered the race at the last minute, ran a poorly organized campaign and then turned in an embarrassing third-place finish in the September primary.

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