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The Sellwood community is distressed over the possibility of a 'hate crime', but firm details seem hard to come by

ERIC NORBERG - The potentially-suspicious overnight Sellwood house fire extinguished, firefighters from several stations in the area began to gather up their equipment. The burned porch, and fire ventilation holes in the roof of the damaged home, are visible in the background. On the rainy Friday morning of May 6, at 3:52 a.m., alarms sounded in several fire stations in and near Southeast Portland, with a report of a house fire on 11th Avenue just south of Miller in Sellwood.

Minutes later, fire companies from Westmoreland, Woodstock, across the Willamette River, and northern Clackamas County were converging on the address; the first firefighters arriving reported an active fire on the front porch of the home.

Shortly, the porch fire had been extinguished and the house was searched for anyone still inside — but everyone was out, holes had been cut in the roof to check for fire extension, and fans were set to exhaust the smoke inside. ERIC NORBERG - S.E. 11th Avenue was completely blocked by fire equipment for some three hours south of Miller Street in Sellwood starting about 4 a.m., while several companies extinguished a fire that started on a porch. For several more hours a team of investigators, including a K-9, were at the scene. As fire equipment was gathered up and packed, four PF&R investigating units were called in — the first one at 4:22 a.m., the last arriving at 7:17 a.m.; and a K-9 investigation unit pulled in at 6:27, suggesting that there may have been suspicions that the fire had been started by someone using an accelerant, detectrable by a trained K-9. Westmoreland's Fire Engine 20 was called back to the scene at 8:47 that morning for an undisclosed reason while the investigators were there.

That much THE BEE has been able to document. It was clear to us from the start that there was something unusual about this fire, but our discussions with Portland Fire and Rescue and the Portland Police Bureau did not add any official details or conclusions about it beyond what we already knew.

Rich Tyler, Lieutenant/Fire Inspector for PF&R, simply told us, "This was a fire on the front porch that started to extend to the interior of the building. Fire crews were able to extinguish it quickly, avoid the hole in the front porch, and save the rest of the house from catching on fire. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. No injuries reported." Several days later, various community leaders in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood began to communicate by email amongst themselves about how the victims believed this fire was deliberately set, and suspected it could have been a "hate crime". The family is Jewish, and their concern may have been prompted by a recent spate of vandalism at Jewish and Muslim places of worship around the Portland area, including one attempted arson, all apparently perpetrated by one person who identified himself to a KPTV Fox-12 news reporter, and who was then arrested. There appears to us to be nothing obvious yet to connect that person with this fire, however.

That email exchange included the statement that the FBI was investigating the fire. Certainly, if it were possibly a hate crime of some sort, even if it turned out not to be, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be involved. THE BEE contacted the local office of the FBI to ask if it were indeed part of the investigation of this fire, and Dixon Land, Temporary Public Affairs Specialist, responded: "Here's what I can tell you: The FBI is in contact with our law enforcement partners. We take any such matters extremely seriously." That is not a denial of involvement — but it certainly does not specifically acknowledge any FBI involvement with this fire investigation, either.

The smoke damage to the house has meant that the family is temporarily living elsewhere while repairs are underway. If further details become available, THE BEE will report them. (David F. Ashton contributed to this story.)

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