Motor City Is Burning

A new film considers the impact of budget cuts on fire services as Detroit struggles

Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s “Burn” looks at the unexpected costs of budget cuts for firefighters in Detroit.

There’s more to firefighters than hunky calendars and being the dream job of 4-year-olds everywhere. Especially in Detroit.

Brenna Sanchez and Tom Putnam, directors of the new documentary “Burn,” saw a news story about a firefighter who died fighting a blaze in an abandoned Detroit warehouse.

“Neither of us could understand why someone would risk his life in an abandoned structure,” Sanchez says. “I went down to the firehouse and asked that question.”

What the two found was a diverse group of men, all combating fires in the face of budget cuts that threatened not only their effectiveness, but their very lives and the lives of the residents of Detroit. Trucks and equipment in disrepair pose a real threat to firefighters, unlike, say, when your work computer is running kind of slow.

“We, as citizens, think our services are taken care of,” Sanchez says. “At the very least, we’d hope that the firefighters coming to our house have what they need to do the best they can. What we learned is that, [while] Detroit is an extreme, it represents what’s happening in degrees across the country.”

Budgets and unions are a major theme of the film, especially as the Detroit firefighters try to work with a new fire commissioner, Donald Austin. Austin, who has the unenviable job of trying to cut costs without getting anyone killed, makes the call that Detroit’s firefighters will no longer attempt to save abandoned buildings — a move that could have unintended consequences.

“In Detroit, there can always be a civilian in that abandoned or abandoned-looking structure,” Sanchez says. “People have boarded up their homes [because] they want the houses to look abandoned.” (In a city with 80,000 vacant homes, you don’t want to advertise that you’re the only ones on the block with stuff to steal.)

Sanchez says she hopes audiences will see parallels to their own government’s budget fights. “The next time [viewers] see a fire truck go by, we want them to think, ‘Do they have what they need?’”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · December 6, 2012