A string of suspicious fires that hit the battered city of Flint, Mich., after more than 20 firefighters were laid off and two firehouses closed were meant to "terrorize the community," the mayor claims.
Since the job cuts in late March, 153 of 202 fires – mostly in vacant buildings – were classified as suspected arson, city officials said. The number of arson fires began to decline after a federal grant enabled the city to rehire some of the firefighters.
"I don't believe in coincidences," Mayor Dayne Walling told ABCNews.com.
A string of 14 suspicious fires erupted the night before the city laid off 23 firefighters and 23 police officers on March 24 in an attempt to close an $8 million budget deficit. Two of Flint's five fire stations were also shut down that night.
"The initial string of fires, more than a dozen in the first 24 hours as those layoffs were going into effect, were clearly motivated by a political agenda to terrorize the community," Walling said.
The mayor won't say who he believes is behind the arson spree, but said he doesn't believe members of Flint's fire department were involved. A handful of arrests have been made in connection with the fires, including gang members and people scavenging abandoned buildings for cooper and metal.
The mayor said he believed the arsonists were not amateurs.
"It is an individual or group of individuals who have a certain level of training, a certain lack of fear of fire," Walling said. "Often multiple fires are set within the same structure… When I say training it means somebody who understands – whether it means from an engineering or architectural or military perspective. Those initial arsons were not someone paid by a gang member."
Walling's insinuation has infuriated the city's firefighters union.
"They make the comment that the fires were suspicious and that it was actually somebody that knew what they were doing and you can read between the lines," said firefighters union president Raul Garcia.
"We don't think comments like that are worth responding to," said Mark Kovach, vice president of the Flint firefighters union, which represents the city's 99 firefighters. In the 1990s, he said, the department had about 180 members.
Flint has been hit hard by the loss of tens of thousands of auto industry jobs in recent decades, with its population falling to about 115,000 from a peak of nearly 200,000. The city is dotted with shuttered homes and crumbling neighborhoods.
The recent string of fires left the community coordinating neighborhood patrols and boarding up vacant homes. A handful of firefighters sustained minor injuries combating the fires, but no civilians were hurt. Walling said a task force made up of the Flint police and fire department officers along with the state police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the arsons.
Kovach believes the fires were spurred in part by Flint's economic straits.
"We have a situation where you have a lot a vacant homes and lot of people trying to get rid of eyesores and potential crime magnets," he said. "The mayor tells you that he's drastically reducing his police and fire forces, and I think that only opens the door for people to do things that they had maybe considered in the past."
A $6.76 million federal grant earlier this month enabled the city to rehire 39 firefighters and reopen the shuttered fire stations for at least another two years. "I'm hopeful that we would be able to retain at least some after that," Walling said.
As soon as the laid off firefighters returned to work, the number of fires began to trickle from six to 10 a day to three or four, officials said.
"I believe that this will end with an individual or two being apprehended and their neighbors will say that they can't believe this nice man was out there doing these terrible things," Walling said.