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Detroit is burning, and the city’s fire commissioner has decided to let it burn.

Thanks to a withering automotive industry and violent racial tensions that have rocked the city, Detroit’s population has diminished by half, resulting in 80,000 abandoned buildings. So many fires ravage these vacant structures that some officials have decided that if a burning building is empty, it should be left to smolder.

Sobering facts like these are scattered throughout Burn, a documentary that follows the working lives of the close-knit band of men who make up Detroit’s Engine Company 50.

These men might be the most overworked, underpaid and undervalued public servants in America. They battle an average of 30 structure fires a day (by comparison, Los Angeles, with more than four times as many people, has around 11) with outdated, failing equipment — all for $30,000 a year (no raises).

Burn screens Wednesday and Thursday exclusively at the Moore Warren.

The film does well to humanize the men behind the heavy fire suits and oxygen masks. We see the off-duty firefighters horse around, trade friendly insults and comfort each other through the many tragedies that befall their community. The doc zeroes in on the poignant lives of a few individuals in particular: a young firefighter who suffered a life-changing injury on the job, a senior firefighter facing retirement and a new fire commissioner from L.A. forced to slash a virtually nonexistent budget despite a staggering number of blazes. I found myself wrapped up in the lives of these people, reveling in their successes and lamenting their failures.

Co-directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s footage is mesmerizing. Shots of residential Detroit resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all is eerily quiet and buildings are charred and crumbling. Even more spellbinding is the footage of the firefighters plunging into burning houses, as the shots are from a first-person perspective. Watching axes swing and flaming rafters fall, I swore I could feel the suffocating heat and smoke.

Burn paints a current problem in a very real, emotionally captivating way. For those put off by documentaries, don’t let that deter you. The film is grounded in Detroit’s humanity and never lets its audience forget that these are real people putting their lives at risk for citizens who often end up losing everything through fire’s destructive force. 

The movie is unsurprisingly somber at times, but manages keep an optimistic tone in the face of the overwhelming odds the men of EC50 face. —Alyssa Grimley

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