For the five years that the wood bungalow next door has been empty, Darlene Banks has kept an eye on it as Halloween approaches. She wasn’t expecting anyone to burn it weeks sooner.
But the dilapidated house on Detroit’s east side went up in flames one weekend in early October, along with 10 other houses on six adjacent streets — an apparent challenge to the city’s annual mobilization to prevent arsons over the Halloween period that has become infamous as Devils’ Night.
The stakes are even higher this year, as the city already devastated by the exodus of jobs and unemployment of around 27 percent moves toward the Halloween weekend. Along with tens of thousands of long-vacant homes and buildings, the more than 40,000 others recently emptied by the foreclosure crisis could present tempting targets.
And the recent rash of fires caught many people, like Banks, off guard.
“I hope they don’t bother it again,” she said of the partially blackened shell a few yards away. Had the two houses been closer, she said, her modest brick bungalow “probably would be gone up in smoke.”
Known as “Mischief” and “Cabbage” nights in other parts of the country, Devils’ Night in Detroit once brought pranks such as egging houses. But the tricks took a sinister turn in the late 1970s.
Devils’ Night fed on its own notoriety and the city’s abundant supply of abandoned buildings. At its peak in 1984, 810 fires were reported over the three-day Halloween period. Flames high in the night sky were seen on television broadcasts around the world.
Police and firefighters became more vigilant, eyeing streets with large swaths of empty houses. They were joined by a growing army of volunteers patrolling their neighborhoods in an anti-arson campaign that was dubbed Angels’ Night in 1996.
The patrols are a success. Of the 136 fires reported last Halloween, 94 were believed to be intentionally set. That’s down from 142 fires reported in the same period in 2007, with 111 being suspicious.
Fires overall fell between 2007 and 2008, Detroit’s fire department says. It responded to 32,351 in 2008, down 3 percent from a year earlier. That included 1,230 arsons, a drop of nearly 17 percent.
But the 11 houses that burned within 90 minutes on Oct. 11 have authorities concerned about an arsonist at work before the three-night neighborhood patrols begin Oct. 29.
And this year, there are simply many more houses to watch. Three years ago, about 70,000 properties in Detroit were vacant. Massive job losses in the auto industry and manufacturing have forced thousands more homeowners into foreclosure.
“With the foreclosure issue and the abandoned homes, it becomes a temptation to some people,” said Luther Keith, executive director of Arise Detroit!, a coalition of community groups. “We know we have mischief makers. They don’t care about lighting the house that could destroy someone else’s property, or hurt or kill someone.”
Mayor Dave Bing, who has devoted most of his attention to a $300 million budget deficit, can’t afford to be seen as lax on the issue just before the Nov. 3 election in which he is seeking a full term. He began planning this summer and expects 50,000 volunteers — about the same number as in past years — to help patrol by car and on foot. Curfews for anyone under 18 again will be in place.
“Foreclosed and abandoned homes are always a concern for the police and fire departments,” Bing said. “This year is no different. While we are in the midst of an economic crisis, there is no excuse to not protect the city from those who want to do it harm.”
Police patrols have increased in Banks’ neighborhood. Known arsonists are being tracked down, said Police Chief Warren Evans, who doesn’t believe the rash of fires are precursors “of things to come.”
“I think we’ve earned an Angels’ Night reputation,” he said. “Who knows where these phenomena start, the idea of acting a fool on these nights, anyway?”
The series of arsons frightened Willie Mae Foreman, who woke to find that the house across the street had been torched. Two more vacant homes are next door.
Whoever set that house on fire “could have got the one next door and I would have been hit,” said Foreman, speaking through protective metal bars on the door of the house she has lived in since 1973.
In the past, neighborhood patrols kept arsonists at bay over the Halloween period, she said. But “after this happened the other night, I’m fearful.”