Fires vanish from Detroit’s notorious Devil’s Night

Nov 1, 2021 at 12:22 pm
click to enlarge Detroit Fire Department's Engine 39. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Detroit Fire Department's Engine 39.

Detroit has chased the devil out of Halloween.

For decades, arsonists have set fire to houses, commercial buildings, cars, and dumpsters on what became known as Devil’s Night on Halloween Eve.

Between 1979 and 2010, more than 100 fires broke out each year. The worst year was 1984, when firefighters responded to more than 800 blazes that covered the entire city in an eerie, smoky haze on Halloween morning.

But over the past decade, fires have steadily declined.

This year, the city recorded only three structure fires on Halloween Eve, compared to nine last year and seven in 2019.

“It’s been trending down every year,” Deputy Fire Commissioner Dave Fornell tells Metro Times. “We’re extremely happy with the numbers.”

Instead of rushing to blazes, firefighters handed out candy.

In 2017, after Devil’s Night fires reached a record low, Mayor Mike Duggan ended Angels’ Night, the city-led mobilization of thousands of volunteers to patrol the streets for firebugs and other mischief-makers so residents could focus on the positive festivities of Halloween.

The exact origin of Devil’s Night is unknown, but the phrase dates back to at least the early 20th century when pranksters rang doorbells, soaped windows, and stole buggies.

Since the 1910s, fires have been a part of the Halloween tradition in Detroit. Students at the former Detroit College of Medicine used to set large bonfires in the streets and even handed cigars to arriving firefighters. In 1935, then-Detroit Police Commissioner Heinrich A. Pickert threatened pranksters with jail.

“The starting of bonfires is a dangerous thing; the pulling of fire alarm boxes is a serious thing; the rubbing of soap on show windows and doors or windows of automobiles or making scratches with sharp instruments on buildings are expensive tricks and those caught in such acts will be sent to the nearest station,” Pickert told The Detroit Free Press.

By the 1970s, fires turned more violent and broke out in cars, houses, and buildings during a three-day period beginning Oct. 29. More than 100 fires broke out each year from 1979 to 2011. After 354 fires broke out in 1994, then-Mayor Dennis Archer created “Angels’ Night” with thousands of volunteer patrols, strict curfews, and bans on portable gas containers.

In 1995, the number of fires declined to 158. That downward trend continued and never stopped.

It’s unclear what snuffed out the notorious tradition. It could be attributed to fewer houses and buildings to burn, a strong presence of police, volunteers, arson investigators, and ATF agents, and a disregard for the mischievous tradition.

And the fires haven't just disappeared on Devil’s Night. Overall, the number of fires continues to decline throughout the year.

Meanwhile in East Lansing over the weekend, Michigan State University fans set more than 20 fires following the game between rivals MSU and the University of Michigan, torching discarded sofas and mattresses. The Spartan fans also flipped a car on its side, and someone tried to set it on fire.

With fewer fires in Detroit, firefighters are able to respond to more medical emergencies. In 2015, Detroit began cross-training firefighters to respond to medical emergencies.

Firefighters stabilize patients until medics arrive in ambulances. They can use a defibrillator, administrate CPR and oxygen, and stop patients from bleeding. The training helped improve medical response times.

On Halloween Eve, firefighters made 73 emergency medical runs, compared to 39 in 2020. On Halloween, firefighters responded to 101 medical emergencies, compared to 37 in 2020.

“This is a big part of what the fire department is turning into,” Fornell tells Metro Times. “We’re able to get there and initiate life-saving care.”

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