It’s a perfect firestorm.
The once-mighty Detroit has been gutted by factory closings, crime and poverty, losing more than half of its population since 1950. The approximately 80,000 abandoned homes are an open invitation to arsonists, who start an estimated 30 fires a day in the city. Because of the desolation, many of the blazes get a good hold before the alarm is raised.
At the time the documentary “Burn” begins, the Detroit Fire Department boasts a culture of aggressive fire attack. Rather than the safer “surround and drown” exterior attack, commonly used in situations where the structure is vacant, fire is advanced and no neighboring structures are endangered, in Detroit, fires are fought from the inside. No matter how decrepit the building, Detroit firefighters climb ladders onto roofs to cut vent holes and break down boarded-up doors to crawl over rickety floors to reach the fire.
And for “Burn,” a dozen of the firefighters wore helmet cams, capturing hellish scenes of rolling fire and thick, black smoke that audiences might find difficult to comprehend even as they watch it on the screen.
Together, those factors make for a thrilling film, providing plenty of real-life action. But “Burn,” made by directors/producers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez after a year embedded with Engine 50 on the city’s blighted east side, also tells the personal story of a financially strapped city. Firefighters mend their worn-out boots with duct tape, wrecked apparatus sits in the repair shop and a truck without approved hoses or ladders stands in for pumpers and ladder trucks.
“Burn” tells the story of a new commissioner, whose first visit to the men of Engine 50 is all bluster. “I don’t give a s--- whether you like me or not!” he tells the hard-pressed men. He calls dumb moves that destroy equipment – including one fire truck parked on railroad tracks, and, yep, hit by a train – “pure, unadulterated nonsense.” But time and stress will erode that facade.
“Burn” is also the story of Dave Parnell, who is months away from retirement. He’s well-liked and known around the firehouse for his gravel-voiced philosophizing.
Finally, “Burn” is the story of Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, who came on the job at 20 and worked for 13 years before being horribly injured in a wall collapse during a fire. When his beautiful young wife says, “I always thought he was kind of invincible,” it’s hard not to shed a tear.
The stories intertwine as the months pass, with the fire department dodging disaster, until, inevitably, luck runs out at the worst possible time.
“Burn,” aided in the early stages by a division of PBS, was dropped and then salvaged, like a piece of Detroit fire equipment, with determination and donations collected through Kickstarter and corporations, the biggest being General Motors. Having Denis Leary and Jim Serpico of “Rescue Me” join the effort in 2011 as executive producers also gave the film a boost.
Although the fascinating interludes of helmet-cam fire footage, set to throbbing rock and rap music, will get your adrenaline pumping, the sheer human drama of the brave Detroit firefighters is what will stay with you long after the last of the overhaul has been done.
Over the weekend, we learned that Detroit will be placed under a financial emergency manager. In the meantime, some proceeds from “Burn” will go to the Leary Firefighters Foundation to buy gear for Detroit firefighters. I can’t think of a better use for the money.
Starring: Dave Parnell, Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, Donald Austin, Craig Dougherty
Director: Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez
Running time: 86 minutes
Rating: Unrated, PG-13 equivalent for brief obscenity and intense situations.
The Lowdown: Detroit firefighters battle budget cuts and hazards of the job while arsonists burn down their city.