DETROIT, Michigan (WDIV) - Detroit Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin is proposing the city allow vacant buildings and homes to burn themselves out - but under conditions.
"We are in no way looking to 'let the city' burn, this is about saving lives and money," Austin said. "My department is strapped, the budget is strapped, and it's time to look at a new way of doing things."
Austin, a former Los Angeles assistant fire chief, became head of Detroit fire operations last May.
Wide swaths of Detroit's once-teeming neighborhoods now consist of scattered occupied homes, surrounded by boarded-up structures, burned-out husks and weed-covered vacant lots.
One of Austin's proposals would allow vacant buildings to burn if they're more than 50 percent ablaze - as long as they're not a risk to inhabited structures and the weather is favorable.
Austin said about 40 to 60 percent of the fires in Detroit are in vacant structures.
Another proposal is to ask the U.S. Navy's construction division, the Seabees, to level 10,000 vacant and dilapidated homes.
And a third is to create a demolition unit in the fire department, Austin said, using heavy equipment to level the remnants of newly burned buildings.
The unit would be similar to a tractor company Austin created in Los Angeles to cut breaks around wildfires, maintain hillside fire roads and overhaul large industrial fires.
"As the commissioner, I need keep in the mind the best interest of my men and women and sending them into a vacant building to save a structure with no value is just too high risk," Austin said.
Austin said he's trying to help the department grapple with a looming 15 percent budget cut.
Detroit stands out from other large U.S. cities and will need to take drastic steps to meet its service needs, he said.
"Name another city in the United States that lost 200,000 people in 10 years," said Austin, citing U.S. Census figures. "So we're in a unique position. And I believe it takes unique approaches to deal with situations that are not the norm."
Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Daniel McNamara said he opposes Austin's idea of letting vacant homes burn, unless they're on a predetermined demolition list, as is the case in Flint.
"If we could have that kind of communication, we wouldn't have this kind of discussion right now," McNamara said.