A LOUD GRINDING NOISE disturbed neighbors near the 52nd Ave. block of SE Foster at 10 pm on June 21. Looking outside, they saw an eerie orange hue lighting up the sky.
The Dougy Center, a nationally recognized institution for grieving children and families, had been set ablaze and was burning with a furious noise that one witness describes as sounding "like a chainsaw." Orange flames surged from the building as firefighters struggled to extinguish it. The center's records were destroyed, the building was reduced to a charred shell, and the families who relied on it had another reason to grieve.
This was just the latest in a string of mysterious fires in the area that have residents worried a serial arsonist is in the neighborhood.
"We're afraid we're next," says Pete Sweeney, a construction worker who lives on the same block as the Dougy Center. He says people living nearby are increasingly upset and concerned as rumors of suspicious fires spread as quickly as the fires themselves.
According to records from the Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau, there were two dumpster fires in neighborhoods surrounding the Dougy Center in May. One was at an apartment complex on SE Woodstock, and another at a pharmacy on Foster. The same month, the recycling bin of a nearby professional building housing a law firm and a chiropractic clinic was lit up. The fire spread to the building, scorching the law firm's office, but leaving the clinic undamaged.
"I really didn't believe it," says Theresa King, a chiropractic physician at the clinic who is considering getting motion-detecting light sensors. The clinic has stopped leaving its recycling outside, she says.
Still, the most baffling of the string of fires in the area have been those that occurred at the Dougy Center. Prior to the June blaze that caused the center to close its doors, it had two smaller fires set on the premises. In March, someone filled a soda can with a flammable liquid and set it aflame on the center's back porch—the fire didn't do much damage, but a second fire destroyed a play structure in the backyard of the center, prompting administrators to install motion-detector spotlights and post flyers around the neighborhood soliciting information and warning neighbors to keep on the lookout.
These efforts proved futile when the June fire set outside the center spread to the first and second floors, rendering them unusable. A blue tarp now covers its singed northeast corner, while a chain-link fence and yellow tape border the center. Boards cover its doors and window. A small shrine of flowers and stuffed animals sits outside the ravaged building.
"It's added another layer of grief," says Marcia Director, the coincidentally named director of development for the Dougy Center.
Director says the fire has been hard on families and children who use the center to cope with the loss of a loved one. It now operates out of a small administrative building next door that survived the blaze.
Lieutenant Allen Oswalt of the Fire and Rescue Bureau says they are investigating the fires as arson.
Since the fire at the center, rumors have been circulating about other small fires in the area: Oswalt says he's heard murmurs about residents experiencing strange fires in their garbage cans. However, he is unable to elaborate because most have gone unreported. He notes that these fires might be little more than someone carelessly flicking a cigarette butt in the garbage, and that there are mysterious fires all over the city during the summer months that may or may not be related.
In the meantime, neighbors are anxiously hoping that the strange pattern of fires has stopped.
"It's very concerning," says Jennifer Hoenigman, another witness of the fire at the Dougy Center. "We stayed home for Fourth of July."