Unquenchable fires still rage
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, December 7, 2012
By now, we all know about Detroit: A former buzzing capital of industry, largely abandoned, is now scarred with thousands of vacant buildings.
But what we may not have realized is that those deserted structures -- not to mention some less empty ones -- have become catnip for arsonists. On the surface, the documentary “Burn” charts a year for a team of firefighters who battle an overwhelming number of blazes. But it’s also an emotional character study of a group of heroic, yet very human, individuals.
Directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez deserve credit for subject selection. The close-knit boys club that is Engine Company 50 is a lively bunch with a lot to say. Among the memorable personalities profiled is Dave Parnell, who lives where he works, on the blighted east side of Detroit, and plans to retire after 30 years. He speaks in adages, which both delight and infuriate his colleagues.
The filmmakers also focus on Brendan “Doogie” Milewski, a baby-faced 30-something who was a hard-partying guy until he lost the use of his legs when a fiery building facade collapsed on him.
The cards are undoubtedly stacked against these men. They have no resources, often resorting to duct tape to hold uniforms and trucks together. Every day promises dozens of fires, 95 percent of which the film says result from arson. But for many, firefighting is in their blood, a legacy they don’t want to escape. They work second jobs to make ends meet in order to run into burning buildings.
The dangers of the job are clearly defined, and not just from footage of Milewski’s harrowing injury. The camera follows the men on their obscure journeys into smoke-filled houses, and the subjects recount stories of collapsed roofs and bathtubs plummeting from the floor above.
The unfortunate reality is that things don’t get better over the course of the film. There’s hope in the form of a new fire commissioner, Don Austin, but his straight talk and penchant for change throw Detroit’s firemen into a tizzy. He makes it clear that the companies need to make due with what they have, and he isn’t amused when groups abuse their equipment. He’s particularly chagrined to hear stories such as the one about the fireman who parked a rig on train tracks. And yet, he’s not the bad guy so much as another character groping in the haze for out-of-reach solutions. In one scene, the camera captures Austin vacuuming his office after letting go his one-person custodial team.
The film’s lively soundtrack complements the group’s swagger when the men are at their best. But the camera doesn’t shy from their worst moments, including Parnell’s heartbreaking relationship with his sick wife and Milewski’s painful rehab. The result feels like a complete portrait, if not of the city, at least of this select group of individuals.
Flames alter what they touch. So one of Austin’s declarations makes sense: “As firefighters, all we deal with is change.”
The only thing that appears consistent is the miraculous appearance of these men, clocking in, day after day.
Contains profanity and brief nudity.