DETROIT (Reuters) - It was the death of Walter Harris, a 17-year veteran Detroit firefighter, in an abandoned building four years ago that inspired Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez to film their documentary "BURN."
"(Harris) was killed in the collapse of an abandoned building while fighting a fire. We heard that story and asked ourselves a pretty obvious question outside the fire service: Why is someone risking his life fighting a fire in an abandoned building? ... It seemed like there was a very compelling story here," Putnam told Reuters.
For an entire year, producers Putnam and Sanchez, 39, a Detroit native now living in Los Angeles, followed the firefighters of Engine Company 50 (E50) on Detroit's downtrodden east side, chronicling their triumphs and tragedies, as well as their private moments.
Now their film "BURN," which won the audience award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, is helping to raise much-needed money for Detroit firefighters, even as the filmmakers seek funds to get their documentary released nationwide.
On their first two nights with E50, Putnam and Sanchez went to 21 fires.
"The sheer volume and scope of the work that these guys were dealing with was shocking," said Putnam. "We didn't know what they were getting into."
Added Sanchez: "Being from Detroit, you become immune. It wasn't until I left that I realized not everyone is burning their city down."
Since 1950, racial tensions and vanishing industry have cut Detroit's population in half from 1.8 million to 714,000. As a result, there are more than 80,000 abandoned homes all over the city.
The film makers found that the city has an average of 30 fires daily, and one of the highest arson rates in the world. Los Angeles, with a population of around 4 million, has an average of 11 fires a day.
As if things weren't tough enough, Detroit is seeking to avoid bankruptcy and firehouses all over the city have been hit by budget cuts.
E50 is no exception. The firefighters told Putnam and Sanchez they haven't been given a raise in 10 years, they have holes in their boots and they don't have the proper tools needed to fight fires. Yet that doesn't stop them from going out and risking their lives daily.
"We always thought these guys were taken care of," said Sanchez. "Once we got in there, we saw what a budget cut looks like. That means a broken rig, holes in their boots, a shortage in tools, and a lack of training."
From the moment they met the E50 firefighters, Putnam and Sanchez decided "BURN" should benefit Detroit firefighters.
Actor Denis Leary and his producing partner Jim Serpico - both of whom were involved in the 2004-11 "Rescue Me" TV series about New York firefighters - came aboard as executive producers for the documentary last year.
A significant portion of any proceeds from "BURN" will go to the Leary Firefighters Foundation. Detroit firefighters have already received $25,000 in new gear, according to Putnam.
"I think every first responder should have the tools and training they need to do their job or they shouldn't have to come to work. But that said, how do you get blood from a stone? The tax base in Detroit is nearly non-existent. It's an impossible situation," said Sanchez.
Putnam and Sanchez are releasing "BURN" themselves, which is in limited release in Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. this week, and seeking funds to take the film nationwide in 2013.
"If you gave these guys a horse and bucket of water, they'd still find a way to do their job and put the fire out," said Putnam.
"People like to talk about Detroit about representing what's wrong with America and I think guys like the people we met represent what's best," he said.
For further information about "BURN," go to www.detroitfirefilm.org and www.learyfirefighters.org.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Kenneth Barry