Part of me was rooting for the Detroit Tigers to win the 2012 World Series just because the once vibrant city hasn’t had much to cheer about for a long time. Hammered by a terrible economy, the struggling auto industry and the attendant crime and social problems, the city’s population has dropped from over 1.8 million people in 1950, to just over 700,000 today. The new documentary Burn: One Year on the Front Lines to Save the City of Detroit examines the crumbling city from the perspective of the crew of Engine Company 50, a team of firefighters who protect one of the poorest areas of the city. Though the number of Detroit firefighters has also been reduced by similar percentages to the overall population, the incidence of fire has actually increased 300% as abandoned building after abandoned building has gone up in an arson fire or in an accident making Detroit home to more fires than any other city in the country.

Though it’s partly a cry for help for the entire city (and a nice companion piece to the recent documentary Detropia) Burn is also at heart a celebration of the men and women who daily risk their lives despite being overworked, underpaid and relying on worn out, dated equipment with little hope for help from a local government lacking the money to make things better. Through extensive interviews and by following Engine Company 50 through the daily dangers of their difficult job, Burn introduces us to the is the 35-year veteran whose ailing wife has finally convinced him to retire against his will; the young man trying to recover from an on-the-job back injury that has left him paralyzed; the new fire chief brought in from Los Angeles to try to fix a broken system but facing budget cuts on one side and departmental distrust on the other; and the countless numbers of others who have second jobs because they don’t make enough to support their families by protecting the city.

Why do they do it? The answer varies. For many, it’s family tradition. Their fathers did it and so did their father’s fathers before them. They’re rightfully proud of what they do. For others, it’s the adrenalin and the danger. How many little kids grew up with “fireman” on their list of things they wanted to be when they grew up and in how many other careers can you legitimately call yourself a hero?

While it doesn’t try to offer much in the way of solutions to the vast problems it documents, Burn is in a way a cautionary tale for all the other struggling cities in the country (including my own city of Los Angeles) where the first things to be cut in times of trouble seem to be firefighters, teachers, police and other departments that quietly make a city great. It also offers a ray of hope in dismal times just by its example of dedicated people who keep doing their dangerous jobs, not just for tradition or the thrill, but because someone has to. Detroit may not have won the World Series, but the real heroes in the city work for Engine Company 50 and the other companies just like them. As long as they do, there is always hope and that’s something.

Burn is directed by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez and counts Denis Leary (Rescue Me) among its executive producers. It won the Audience Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It opens in Los Angeles on November 2, New York on November 9, Detroit, DC and Chicago in December and other cities in 2013. According to the film’s website, “a significant portion of any profits from the film will go the the Leary Firefighters Foundation to purchase gear for the firefighters.”

2 Responses to “Burn: A Year on the Front Lines to Save the City of Detroit (2012)”

  1. Craig, this film was screened several times earlier this year at Tribeca, and won an audience award. But those I did hit that festival hard, I didn’t manage to get this in. Your opening, where you show empathy for the much maligned city (and rooting for the Tigers is most understandable) is moving, and your solid essay makes an impassioned case.

  2. I’m not sure it’s a “great” documentary, but it was an interesting and worthy subject that has ramifications for all of us. I read that the cut they played at Tribeca wasn’t finished yet, but still as you note it won the audience award. For obvious reasons, I think New Yorkers have a special relationship with their local fire fighters.

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