An orange post at the top of a steep, dead-end section of Harrison Avenue in Uppertown featured two notes with distinct messages Wednesday.
One was a line of yellow caution tape that read, “FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS.” The other — a white placard atop a short wooden post — read, “Be a good neighbor. Please pick up the poop.”
Views from residents on or near 38th Street and Harrison Avenue on Wednesday were similarly mixed. They expressed their fears and offered uneasy laughs as they reflected on a series of recent fires in the neighborhood and thought about how to prevent more incidents.
Since Jan. 6, small blazes have left burn marks on three houses, one of which was burned twice. Fires destroyed a pickup truck and scorched a garage with a Suzuki motorcycle, four recycling bins and a lawnmower inside.
Multiple police agencies, Astoria fire, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the Clatsop County Fire Investigation Team, the Clatsop County District Attorney’s Office and a representative from the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office have been investigating. Officials have not announced suspects in the case and have declined to specify whether they have any leads.
Prior to this week, two houses sustained burn marks to the left of the front doors. One also had damage on the side after someone apparently tried to use an accelerator to light a gas meter, while the other was burned on two separate occasions.
The most recent incidents took place about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. The Tuesday fire erupted inside a detached garage outside a home occupied by two adults and their two young children.
Matt Pierce, 37, was alerted by a neighbor before he hurried outside, turned a garden hose and fire extinguisher on the flames and called 911. By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze was almost completely contained. He and the rest of the family were unharmed.
“I’ll never complain about having a detached garage again,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a couple days.”
Because the door didn’t work — and they were unconcerned about the motorcycle being stolen on the quiet street — the Pierces had left the garage open for years. Despite that and the timing, authorities told the family it’s highly unlikely the fire was started on purpose. It began near a battery toward the rear wall and moved forward, and tampering with the battery to achieve that precise result is highly complicated.
“We are confident that that is not related to the others,” Astoria Fire Chief Ted Ames said.
But several residents say the coincidence remains impossible to ignore.
“They were frustrated last night,” Pierce said of the investigators. “They had a clear pattern with the scorches on the front of the houses, and the vehicle fires don’t fit that pattern. As soon as the vehicles started getting destroyed, that’s a clear escalation. They can’t rule out arson, really, but they couldn’t prove it was arson either.”
While it’s hard to disconnect the fire from other incidents in the area, Pierce said he trusts the official judgments.
“Of course we’re all going to jump to conclusions because we’re not trained on this. That’s our job,” said Pierce, a teacher at Astoria High School along with his wife, Rebecca.
A weary Pierce could not rest the following night either. He was sleeping on his couch as two neighbors across the street slept on hammocks in their front yard.
“I heard a ‘woof,’ like a gas grill lighting or a gas stove,” Pierce said.
Yelling “fire!” as he exited his home, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed up the street with the two men from across the street.
At some point during the commotion, Erik Burgher heard pounding at his door. He was asleep in his home near the corner of Harrison Avenue and 38th Street.
“My first thought is, ‘Why are you knocking on my door?’” Burgher said. “I’m not happy.”
When Burgher went outside, he saw flames towering above his red Ford F-150. When the fire was extinguished, the engine of the truck had melted and the cab was scorched.
“There is no natural cause for that one to occur. None whatsoever,” Ames said. “If I was a betting man, which I don’t like to do, I would say it was probably intentionally set.”
A house farther west on Harrison Avenue from the scene had similar marks as the two other houses. Those burns likely were created the same night as well, a neighbor pointed out.
Burgher, a 49-year-old recreation specialist for the state Department of Forestry, joked about the improbability of this happening in Astoria, adding he was thankful no one has been hurt.
“It’s usually pretty quiet at night and we’re just living our lives,” Burgher said. “You know, this is Astoria. Everybody’s supposed to just be getting drunk or stoned.”
Unnerved by the fires, more than 75 residents gathered inside Alderbrook Hall for a town meeting Wednesday night with city officials. Officers, some of whom will work overtime until the string of fires ends, guarded the neighborhood during the meeting.
“This is a situation that, believe it or not, is as scary for me as it is for all of you,” Ames told the crowd.
Interim Police Chief Geoff Spalding discussed ways to protect homes — buying items such as smoke detectors, security cameras, motion sensor lights and fire extinguishers. He also announced a tip line — 800-452-7888 — and a website for neighbors to connect and form a neighborhood watch — nextdoor.com.
Due to the commotion and concern, many residents have lost sleep. The Pierces even brought their two young children to a day care so they could take naps throughout the day.
Numerous residents Wednesday were either researching or about to purchase some of the items Spalding listed. Burgher said he would keep his shotgun nearby as he slept.
Neighbors have become accustomed to cars driving slowly on their street, but it typically involves people trying to find the Goonies house just up the road. Some took the opportunity at the meeting to make those long-held frustrations known as well.
“Maybe this is the time for us to step up and stop this insanity,” one neighbor said.
The man said he encountered a man Wednesday morning who appeared to be homeless, wearing a backpack and surveying peoples’ backyards. When he approached him, the man inquired about how to find the Goonies house.
“If I see a guy with a backpack trying to look into people’s backyards, I’d doubt that they were looking for the Goonies house,” Spalding advised the crowd.
Some detailed the fears their children have been experiencing and how they’ve been explaining the situation to them. One person asked, since no major damage has been sustained at a house, whether someone was attempting to physically harm them.
“Not so far,” said Ames, knocking on a wooden mantle.