Dougy Center blaze: ARSON!

See exclusive photos of the firefighters risking their lives trying to save the main building of this SE Portland non-profit organization, world-renowned for helping grief-stricken kids, touched by death, to recover …

Straddling the high point of the Dougy Center roof, nearly three stories off the ground, a Portland Fire & Rescue firefighter directs other crewmembers where to spray water.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Neighbors in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, along SE 52nd Avenue just south of SE Foster Road, say they’re concerned about a number of small unexplained fires in their area, occurring since the March 26 fire that damaged a professional building at SE Francis Street.

As she looked up at the fiercely burning main building of the The Dougy Center, at 3909 SE 52nd, at about 10:30 on Sunday, June 21, neighbor Montana Eastman said she was worried that an arsonist could be running loose in the area. “They’ve been small fires – but you just don’t know if your house will be next.”

Fire crews scramble along the roof, as the fire starts to break through the vents.

‘Large’ fire brings multi-station response
As the fire alarms rang inside the Dougy Center, multiple calls to the 9-1-1 Center caused operators to dispatch firefighters.

Portland Fire & Rescue’s (PF&R) Engine 25 got the call at 10:07 p.m, they were first on-scene, one minute later. When they pulled up to the large remodeled home, they reported a fire burning on the back and south side of the structure, said PF&R’s spokesman, Lt. Allen Oswalt, consulting the bureau’s Incident Report submitted by Lt. Christopher Starling.

“The fire appeared to be exterior, but extending above the roof and to the interior,” Oswald said. “Other buildings nearby weren’t in any danger of catching fire.”

The crew riding on Engine 25 took command, and Truck 25’s crew started heading for the roof of the building, which was burning hotter by the minute. Meantime, a second engine assigned to Station 25 hooked up hose lines and started attacking the blaze at the back of the building.

After firefighters open the roof for ventilation, flames leap from the attic.

They were joined by crews from Engine 19, Engine 23 and Engine 9, as they all worked to contain, and then extinguish, the blaze. The crew of Truck 4 started searching the structure, to make sure there were no occupants in the flame-blackened building.

Fighting the fire from every level, up on the pitched dormer roof nearly three stories above the ground, PF&R crews cut holes in the roof, while others hosed water onto the burning building.

Flames could be seen erupting from the roof and around the eves of the building for more than thirty minutes. “Crews were fighting fires on two floors, the roof, and the back of the building. It took them a while to knock it down,” reported Oswalt.

Manager watches center burn
One of the many bystanders in the area was Donna Schuurman, manager of The Dougy Center, As she watched firefighters try to save the building that has housed the privately-funded, non-profit organization since 1982, a look of grief came across her face.

Schuurman said burning structure was located between two other homes that have been converted for their organization’s use.

At times, jets of flame could be seen shooting through the roof.

With an air of dismay, Schuurman told us, “First, there was the professional building catching fire in March. Then, under the stairs at the back of this building, somebody filled a pop can with gasoline or something flammable, and lit it. Fortunately the wooden stairs were too wet to catch fire.”

Next, Schuurman said, someone lit a fire that destroyed a play structure in building’s back yard. “It’s pretty pitiful that somebody would be setting fires – and now, trying to burn down a nonprofit agency that works with children who are grieving because they’ve had a death in their family.”

Asked if she believed this fire could have come from a utility malfunction or other cause, Schuurman replied, “I absolutely think that somebody set this fire. I don’t think this is an accident. This is arson, no doubt about it. It started in the back [behind] the main house, they told us.”

Acting as Safety Officer on the fire, Battalion Chief C1 Chris Babcock keeps a careful eye on the situation, as he confers with a firefighter.

Fire from the rear
The fire was suspected to have started outside the building, pending the final report of the investigator, according to the Incident Report. It spread into the first floor, the second floor, and then extended into the attic and roof.

After the visible flames were extinguished, firefighters continued their “overhaul”, during which crewmembers pull apart charred ceilings, walls, and floors to look for hot spots. This continued into the wee hours of the morning. The first crew returned to Station 25 at 3:48 a.m., while other firefighters stood watch, continuing to put out hot spots.

Says took steps toward protection
The center manager said they’d installed motion-detector spotlights behind the structure. “And, we’ve printed flyers and alerted all of the neighbors. I don’t know what else to do. We’ve had someone out [from the Fire Bureau]; he told me, ‘We don’t really take it seriously until there have been five or six fires’. I wonder if they’re taking it seriously now?”

Softening her statement, Schuurman added, “I’m sure the firefighters are not happy about this, either.”

“We have had conversations with the manager,” Oswalt noted. “And some of these statements are not accurate. In response to their calls, one of our fire inspectors went out and advised them on how to avoid fire liability a couple of weeks ago. This included moving recycling bins away from the building, installing lighting, fencing, and perhaps a video surveillance system.”

The fire bureau spokesman added, “There have been several suspicious fires in SE Portland and in that general area over the last few months. And, when there’s an area where people can be hidden from view, and there are flammable items, it provides a setting for a ‘crime of opportunity’. To say that fire investigators are not taking them seriously is absolutely not true! And, there’s been little evidence; nor have there been any witnesses, yet.”

After multiple crews battle the blaze, firefighters get control of the situation.

Update: Fire Bureau investigates fire as arson
On June 25, Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Fire Investigator Greg Wong issued this statement: “We are treating this [Dougy Center fire] as arson. We’ve assigned extra staff to this case and are actively working and pursuing leads.”

Oswalt commented at that time, “Fire investigators work on establishing patterns of arson, no matter how unclear they may be. Sometimes, a string of fires will point to the arsonist. Please report any fires, especially in this area – burned and gone out by themselves, or you noticed it was burnt after the fact – and call it in.”

With their breathing apparatus air bottles near empty, a group of firefighters return to get a fresh supply before returning to the building.

Recovering from a ‘total loss’
Officials place the building loss at $600,000 and the content loss at $150,000. Schuurman told reporters that their business and financial records were lost in the fire, as were their program materials.

They are now looking for another site to continue their work of counseling children until the center can be rebuilt. If you want to help, see their website:

“We rely on neighbors to help us solve arson crimes,” Oswalt concluded. “(503) 823-3791 is the number for our investigator’s office, or call the Arson Hotline 1-800-452-7888. You may remain anonymous.”

Engines, trucks, and emergency gear from four SE Portland firehouses line SE 52nd Avenue during the late-night fire. This photo looks northward to SE Foster Road from SE Francis Street.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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