Poorly-wired indoor pot farm causes house fire in Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood

It sounded like a run-of-the-mill fire caused by a space heater. But, see why firefighters called in Drug & Vice Division cops, after they extinguished the blaze, and discover startling information a diligent detective dug up on this case – on Christmas Eve, no less

After making sure the fire was out in the attic of this outer SE Portland house, a firefighter climbs down from the roof where they cut open the roof to extinguish the flames.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The information coming across our emergency band radio about a house on fire on SE Woodward Street near SE 138th Avenue, on the frosty evening of December 23, sounded typical: Several Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) stations promptly responded; the fire was quickly extinguished.

Primary and secondary searches of the premise located no victims.

But then, the business-as-usual radio traffic turned cryptic. It was then we decided to head out, and have a look for ourselves.

At the scene, we were stopped by four Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers, dressed in street clothing, who we assumed were PPB Drug & Vice Division officers.

Hoping to find out what it was that touched off the odd radio calls, we spoke with PPB’s District #3 Battalion Chief Mark Gift.

“The fire call came in at 8:16,” Gift reported, “of a fire in the back of a house at 13842 SE Woodward. The first crews to arrive on scene, from Station 7, reported heavy smoke and fire showing from the backside of the residence.”

Gift confirmed that searches of the structure hadn’t located any occupants.

“We found the bulk of the fire was in the back side of the structure,” Gift told us. “It was primarily contained to the attic space of the house. Crews ventilated the roof, and went inside and knocked the main body of fire. They pulled a lot of the ceiling down inside the house, to make sure the fire was extinguished.”

When we asked Gift to comment on the cryptic radio calls we’d heard, he responded, “It was just of the follow-up of the investigation at the scene. We’re just trying to isolate some stuff on scene, as part of the investigation.”

Gift confirmed that police were on-scene, and looking in the house. “Right now, the cause is still under investigation. The preliminary look indicates an electrical problem actually started the fire.”

Firefighters sort through materials taken out of the burned house.

None of the firefighters from PF&R Station 7, Station 29, Station 30, or Station 31 were injured, Gift added. (One of the odd things about the radio calls we’d heard was a safety check made of all on-scene firefighters, making sure none had cut themselves and bled at the house, while fighting the fire.)

Drug cops remain mum
Walking back to our car, we talked briefly with the PPB officers who, while acting solicitous and engaging, provided no information about why they were at the scene in place of the District Officers who typically respond to fires.

PF&R spokesman Lt. Damon Simmons spoke to us by phone the following day: “There wasn’t a lot of furniture in the house reported; firefighters said it didn’t look like a family was living there.”

Asked if the fire’s cause had been determined, Lt. Simmons said, “Investigators found that overloaded electrical circuits and improvised wiring led to the fire that started near the back of the house.”

PPB’s Public Information Officer, Lt. Mary Wheat, said she couldn’t confirm nor deny whether or not this house had been under investigation before the fire broke out. Because the Drug & Vice Division was closed, and the officers involved in the investigation were unavailable, she couldn’t comment on reports by other media that an individual had escaped the burning structure.

“There was a marijuana-growing operation in the garage,” Wheat told us early on Christmas Eve day.

And that explained a lot.

In addition to making sure all of the burned items were completely extinguished, firefighters sort out items that may be of interest to investigators.

Christmas Eve detective work pays off
Later that same afternoon, Det. Wheat called back and said she had information to share, after doing some research on this case.

Even though most of the police bureau (along with most of the City’s offices and bureaus) had closed for the holiday weekend, Wheat’s diligent investigation turned up these facts:

  • Part of the “substandard wiring” reported at the house allegedly skirted the electric power  meter – “Theft of Service” they call it;
  • The house is in the process of foreclosure;
  • An individual was seen leaving the burning house, and the person may have injured when hastily leaving – that person’s identity remains unknown;
  • Arson investigators are taking a closer look at the house; and,
  • As many as 135 marijuana plants were growing at the premises.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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