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Firefighter Rescues Homeless Man in Suspicious Fire

Firefighter Rescues Homeless Man in Suspicious Fire

El Medio Fire Department acting Capt. Chris Tenns revisits a fire location Tuesday and points out where a homeless man lay unseen during a fire last week on Lincoln Boulevard and Myers Street.

San Francisco Chronicle via YellowBrix

July 14, 2010

OROVILLE, CA — A homeless man might have died in a recent suspicious fire at Lincoln Boulevard and Myers Street, if he hadn’t been rescued by a firefighter who happened to glance down and saw a pair of boots barely peeking out of a high clump of brush.

The man was asleep or possibly passed out in a makeshift camp sheltered from sight under a sweeping oak tree and behind tall grass and bamboo, said Chief Rusty Ohlhausen of El Medio Fire Department.

His presence was invisible to firefighters from El Medio and Oroville fire departments, which responded to a vegetation fire at 3:57 p.m. July 7 at the vacant lot that burned about an acre.

El Medio acting Capt. Chris Tenns said the fire is thought to have been deliberately set at a stop sign at a corner of the vacant lot.

It was Tenns who saw the man by accident.

The fire had already burned about three-quarters of an acre and was spreading northward. Tenns walked along the fire line to check the direction and path of the flames, and saw an old trailer-type shed starting to burn.

The area was thick with black smoke and Tenns could barely see anything.

He was nearly past the tree and bushes when he looked down and noticed a pair of boots jutting out of the brush.

Tenns then saw the feet “rustle,” so he looked through the brush, saw a tarp and opened it.

“I opened the tarp and there was a bed,” he said. “A mattress was on fire. The whole inside of the camp was on fire. I pulled him out and walked him to safety.”

Tenns said he thought the man was sleeping.

“The tent was so hidden I couldn’t see him … When I got there, he was waking up, like he couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Tenns said. “That’s when I grabbed him.”

Tenns quickly took the man out onto Myers Street away from the fire and checked him for injuries.

The man was uninjured and refused medical treatment.

Although the blaze was put out within 10 minutes, an investigation continues. Tenns said eyewitnesses reported seeing someone start the fire.

Ohlhausen said the fire is considered a “possible arson” until investigators can speak to a man witnesses said they saw in the area.

Ohlhausen said the suspect is a white man in his 20s to early 30s, with blonde hair. He was wearing dark pants, a blue shirt and a dark blue or black backpack.

Tenns said the suspect has been seen around Oroville Rescue Mission but is not part of the mission.

He also said they take arson “very, very strictly.”

“It just about turned into a homicide,” he said. “It almost ended up being a murder case. That’s why we’re pursuing it big time.”

The victim has been identified only as Mitchell, Ohlhausen said. Tenns said the only thing the man said was that he was bummed his camp burned.

The captain found the man’s bicycle and took it to him.

The victim also may not have really understood what was going on, possibly because he was intoxicated. Ohlhausen said there were some reports the suspect was seen at the camp earlier in the day, and that the two men “had words” and had been drinking alcohol.

To Tenns, his action isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“Anyone would have done it,” he said. “It’s a part of our job.”

He does consider the man to be lucky.

“I just happened to see him when I was walking by. He was extremely lucky,” Tenns said. “A lot of times at grass fires, you don’t think people are there … You don’t think of people sleeping in the grass.”

Despite Tenns’ humility, the chief had high praise for his captain.

“If Chris hadn’t been walking past there, the guy probably wouldn’t have woken until he was burning,” Ohlhausen said. “It was the luck of the draw Chris was walking over there … the man would probably be dead.”

Anyone with information about the suspect or the fire is asked to contact fire engineer Jordan Rodriguez or Chief Ohlhausen at El Medio fire station at 3515 Myers St. or at 533-4484.


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