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Published: Friday, 3/26/2010

Flint fire crews battle 5 suspicious blazes


FLINT, Mich. - Crews battled at least five fires in Flint yesterday, the same day the city began laying off a quarter of its firefighters as part of an effort to close its estimated $8 million budget deficit.

"This was a premeditated attack on the safety of the community that is likely to have been timed to try to achieve some kind of perverted political purpose," Mayor Dayne Walling said at a news conference.

The early morning fires broke out at four vacant homes and an empty 4-story apartment building, Battalion Chief Andy Graves said. They follow four blazes at vacant homes Wednesday that Graves said left one firefighter injured when a ceiling collapsed and another firefighter burned.

"They're all being investigated as suspicious," Chief Graves said.

Mr. Walling has said that barring a last-minute agreement with unions, the city expected to lay off 23 of 88 firefighters and 46 of 150 police officers. Talks continued yesterday.

Some Fire Department layoffs took effect yesterday as firefighters came off duty, Chief Graves said, while others were to take effect today. Flint is closing two of its five fire stations as part of the cost-cutting effort.

A firefighters union official said Mr. Walling's layoffs were an open invitation to arsonists.

"The mayor painted a pretty appealing picture for them," said Mark Kovach, vice president of Flint Firefighters Union Local 352. He said the layoffs leave Flint with half the firefighters it needs to adequately do the job.

The battered industrial city has been hard-hit by the loss of tens of thousands of auto industry jobs over recent decades. Its population has fallen to about 115,000 from a peak of about 197,000, leaving behind crumbling neighborhoods and vacant homes.

A "person of interest" was spotted at the scene of some of the fires yesterday and was being questioned, said Public Safety Director Alvern Lock. He declined to label the person a suspect.

"I think it's someone that has knowledge of what they're doing, and I'll leave it at that," Mr. Lock said at the news conference. "You can read between the lines."

The firefighters injured Wednesday were treated at a hospital and released, Chief Graves said. Mr. Kovach said one had second-degree burns and the other had a concussion from a roof collapse.

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