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A hero's regret: Oak Harbor woman deals with fire's aftermath

Oak Harbor resident Nancy Dehn, at right, and 16-year-old Amanda Gaudette try to clean up around the burned-out shell of Dehn’s trailer home.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Nancy Dehn, at right, and 16-year-old Amanda Gaudette try to clean up around the burned-out shell of Dehn’s trailer home.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Nancy Dehn saved her roommate’s life by breaking down a door and dragging the older woman outside as smoke and flames filled the single-wide in Oak Harbor’s Parkwood Manor trailer park Nov. 4.

“I felt like a hero,” she said.

But she wasn’t treated like a hero.

Dehn lost her home and nearly everything she owned in the fire. Her beloved Chihuahua, Tipper, and two cats were killed. She takes care of a 16-year-old girl, Amanda Gaudette, in an informal custody arrangement. They now live together in a room Dehn rents in a neighboring trailer.

Just a block away sits the burned-out shell of their former home. Dehn can’t afford to have it removed, so the park continues to charge her $436 a month. Local miscreants have been dumping garbage in her yard and looting everything they can get their hands on, even a fence in the back yard and plumbing from underneath the home.

It turned out that the woman Dehn saved, 66-year-old Laura Duncan, admitted setting the fire in a drunken suicide attempt; she pleaded guilty to first-degree arson and was sent to prison.

But the hardest thing to deal with, Dehn said, has been the suspicion and lack of support from the community. She blames Duncan for starting false rumors that the fire started because Dehn was cooking methamphetamine or that she’s part of the local drug scene. She said she was even treated with mistrust by a local church.

“I really feel like I’m looked at like trailer trash,” she said.

Dehn said she’s offered safe haven to many homeless teens in the past, which probably fed into the rumors. But she claims she never allowed the kids to bring drugs into her home and she tutored them the best she could about the urgency of staying clean.

Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme handled the arson case. He said the facts of the case are sad for everyone involved, but especially Dehn.

“She’s left destitute with nowhere to live,” he said.

Court documents indicate Duncan was drinking heavily in her room, which she rented from Dehn, and started lighting fires with a Bic lighter in the afternoon of Nov. 4. Duncan had moved to Oak Harbor from New Orleans about four years ago after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina.

Dehn was in her room talking to a friend when she heard a “crash” sound. Dehn said she was worried about her roommate because the older woman had problems with alcohol, so she hurried to Duncan’s door. Derh smelled smoke, felt that the door was warm and noticed that Duncan had placed a towel at the bottom of it. She first tried to kick down the door, but managed to force it open with her shoulder.

“I couldn’t see anything in the smoke, but I reached in and somehow found her,” Dehn said.

Dehn dragged the older woman outside and called 911. But while waiting for the fire trucks to arrive, Dehn had a seizure and was later transported to the hospital in the ambulance with Duncan. Dehn suffers from a seizure disorder and relies on meager Social Security disability checks.

According to Ohme, Duncan admitted to starting the fire and said she had tried to kill herself, though she was aware Dehn was home at the time. She agreed to plead guilty to first-degree arson. The judge sentenced her to a year and nine months in prison, which was the recommendation worked out in the plea bargain.

Dehn said she had been planning for months prior to the fire to sell her home and move with Amanda to California. She wanted to be near her son and his newborn son, Landon, who was due Jan. 11. Because of the fire, she missed the birth and is stuck in a pit of debt that keeps getting deeper.

“I was literally bagging clothes when my grandbaby was born,” she said.

Ohme said Duncan will be ordered to pay restitution to Dehn once he’s able to figure out the full cost of the fire. But even then, it won’t be a windfall for Dehn, but will likely be limited to a small monthly payment.

Dehn’s on a list for emergency shelter through the Opportunity Council, but she was told the wait might be three weeks and she may not be able to keep the cats that survived the blaze with burned tails.

She’s clearly embarrassed about the prospects of asking for help, but Dehn said she’d be gratified for any assistance from the community. She needs everything, from silverware to blankets to help disposing of a single-wide trailer. Anyone who wants to help can contact her at 360-320-7222.

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