Review: Detroit’s a powder keg in ‘Burn’

A firefighter prepares to head into a fire in "Burn."
(Area 23a)

As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems, the city has the highest number of arson-related fires in the United States. This and other complex, incendiary issues are deftly examined in Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s documentary “Burn,” which vividly captures a year in the life of eastside Detroit’s Engine Company 50.

Over the years, a perfect storm of urban trauma — poverty, severe population loss and industrial decay — left Detroit with 80,000 abandoned houses and a legacy of 30 structure fires per day. Unfortunately, due to harsh austerity measures, the city can barely sustain its existing firefighting trucks, equipment and uniforms; the local starting salary for this life-and-death profession: $30,000 a year.

It’s in this precarious environment that Engine Company 50’s tightly knit, deeply committed crew battles as many fiscal and operational crises as it does flames. One fireman here aptly calls the blaze-heavy district “Katrina without the hurricanes.”

While the film includes its share of gripping firefighting footage, it’s the personal stories of several EC50 staffers — a recent widower wrestling with retirement, an injured 30-year-old facing life in a wheelchair — that burn brightest.


But seeing Detroit’s beleaguered new fire commissioner, ex-LAFD head Donald Austin, vacuuming his own office because there’s no janitorial budget, says much about America’s public-sector woes.

“Burn.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.