Unassuming ‘hero’ saves roommate from certain death in outer East Portland inferno

Although he doesn’t consider himself a brave man, learn what Russell Dugan did when high winds whipped this house fire into a major conflagration …

Here, in the darkness of the early morning hours, Portland Fire & Rescue’s photographer Dick Harris captures firefighters at work, dousing wind-whipped flames at this outer East Portland house fire on March 12.

Story and daylight photos by David F. Ashton
His hands, blackened from the ashes of the home in which he once stayed, led him to apologize for the soot, as we shook hands at the conclusion of our interview. Behind him stands the charred shell that was once a modest outer East Portland home.

Yet, some neighbors are calling this man with the dirty hands, Russell Dugan, a hero.

Rescues roommate from blaze
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Dugan begins. “There was a big fire here!” he says as he tries to force a smile on his face to hide the distressing ordeal he’s endured.

“I woke up early this morning, and heard my roommate yelling,” recounts Dugan. “I could smell smoke and see fire. The dining room was engulfed in flames. The only exit I had out was the front door.”

We learn Dugan’s roommate is physically disabled, as Dugan continues: “I grabbed him, and went out the front door. I pushed him out the front door, and went back inside to get the dogs. I got one of the dogs out, and collapsed at the front door – there was too much smoke to go back in for the other dog.

Dugan says he then carried his roommate out into the front yard, clear of danger. “The house was engulfed in flames. The wind made the fire a lot worse. It picked up the fire and carried it over and burned part of the back-end of the neighbor’s house.”

Firefighters drench burning cars in the driveway between the burning home and the neighbor’s home to the north. PF&R, Dick Harris photo

Firefighters clock a four-minute response
Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesman Lt. Allen Oswalt reports that when the fire crew pulled up 5200 block of SE 104th Avenue at 3:09 a.m. – four minutes after the alarm went out – they reported heavy smoke obscuring the scene.

“They made their way down the street, driving through smoke so thick it was hard to see the road, or what exactly was on fire,” Oswalt tells us. “The east wind was blowing the smoke from the fire and keeping it at ground level.”

When the crew of PF&R Engine Company 11 broke through the smoke, they reported in to dispatch, “One house is fully involved, [there are] multiple vehicle fires, and fire exposure to the neighboring house.”

“Because of the amount of fire, and because it had spread to cars and possibly the neighboring house, a second alarm was called to bring additional firefighters to the scene,” relates Oswalt, adding that 53 firefighters, with eight engines and two trucks, were called to fight the fire. We observe that the damage to the neighboring house was limited to the south wall of the home.

By the light of day, the devastation caused by early-morning blaze is clearly evident.

Working smoke detector saves lives
Oswalt says that one of the occupants of the house told investigators that a working smoke alarm had alerted him, and he woke his roommate, and they both escaped.

The man Dugan rescued, who officials say is man in his 60’s, suffered non-life- threatening first and second degree burns, and was transported to Emanuel Hospital.

The Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross was called in to assist the occupants with housing, clothing, and the other needs that they will have for the next several days.

If firefighters had been slow to respond, two or more homes could have been destroyed by the wind-whipped flames.

After finding two wallets in the burned house, Dugan says he’s amazed.

Praises firefighters’ response
In his hands, Dugan holds two wallets – still intact – and a pair of usable eyeglasses.

“I’m really grateful that there was no loss of life except for one of our pet dogs,” he says. “The fire department did a good job getting here quickly and did a great job of saving what they could in the house. What is salvageable, I don’t know yet.”

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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