Detroit - For a long time getting in the Halloween spirit here meant torching the neighbourhood's abandoned buildings, or watching the resulting pyrotechnic display.

The eve of Halloween - dubbed Devil's Night locally - was open season on arson: pranksters, pyromaniacs and slum landlords trying to collect on the insurance would set fire to derelict buildings, abandoned cars, even rubbish bins.

The tradition peaked in 1984 with 297 fires, overwhelming the city's fire department and forcing officials to draw a line in the sand.

This year officials are praying for rain, but they are also counting on an army of civilian vigilantes who will patrol city streets, as they have done for more than 10 years, in an effort to deter firebugs.

"We've got 25 000 volunteers so far, and we expect to have 30 000 by October 29," said Lisa Webb-Sharpe, executive assistant to Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer with special responsibility for what has been dubbed "Angels' Night".

The civic-minded volunteers will be paired off, equipped with flashing yellow lights and sent out in their cars to smoke out would-be arsonists.

The city is not looking for heroics: volunteers are ordered not to tackle potential offenders, but to phone in anything suspicious to authorities who have special "FireNet" teams on stand-by.

Virtually all police leave is cancelled; there's a dusk-to-dawn curfew for anyone under the age of 18 until 6 am on Wednesday, punishable with a fine of up to $500 (about R4 700) and up to 90 days in jail; and residents are reminded not to leave their garbage out for collection after dawn on Tuesday.

A recently enacted emergency law bars anyone from carrying fuel in a portable container. City workers in tow trucks swept the streets over the weekend for abandoned cars.

The three-day anti-arson campaign, which dates back to the mid-1980s, calls on Motor City natives to keep patrolling their neighbourhoods, keep their porch lights on, and their eye on derelict lots until the last trick-or-treater is safely tucked up in bed.

And if the record of the last couple of years is anything to go by, the eve of Halloween will likely be a much more sombre affair than it was in the 1980s, when blazes across the city gave it the air of a Belfast for a fleeting moment.

Last year, the number of fires recorded over the three-day Halloween period from October 29-31 was the second lowest since the city instituted its anti-arson campaign.

The final tally was 151, which, when broken down by day, was close to the city's daily fire average for the rest of the year.

"Angels' Night has turned into a great community event ... neighbours come out and work together, and Halloween is returned to the children," said Webb-Sharpe. - Sapa-AFP