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SUBMITTED PHOTO - Gaston Rural Fire District Engine 1173 was destroyed by a 1983 fire, then rebuilt and used until 2009.Thirty-three years after it burned to its chassis, retired Gaston Rural Fire District Engine 1173 finds itself embroiled in a mystery that involves stolen fire apparatus and the Eastern Oregon Sheriff who became entangled in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation last winter.


Engine 1173 is a cherished part of Gaston Fire District lore, and local firefighters kept tabs on it until a couple of years ago, when mystery overtook history.

The story of the engine began — and very nearly ended — in 1983. On the day after Thanksgiving, a fire alarm went off at the Gaston station. This alarm was different from most, however, because the fire was inside the station, which at the time was located in the City Hall building on Front Street.

When the arriving volunteers fought their way into the smoke-clogged truck bay, they found their most prized possession, a 1983 Ford pumper then known as Engine 1172, in flames. The volunteers managed to push the engine outside before the flames engulfed the old wooden beams of the station, but with nearly all their firefighting equipment on board the burning engine, there was little they could do

to save it. In the end, 1172 burned to its chassis, and all the department’s other apparatus was damaged to some extent.

The cause of the fire never was firmly established, although officials suspected faulty wiring in a device designed to keep the engine’s battery fully charged.

Regardless, Gaston Chief Ron Hoodenpyl found himself unable to respond to calls. Other Washington County fire departments rushed to lend spare equipment to Gaston, and Hoodenpyl vowed to rebuild 1172. It took months but a Portland firm and Cornelius-based Western Fire Apparatus restored the engine to working order.

Hoodenpyl would remain Gaston’s chief, with one short break, for the next two decades, and Engine 1172, by then known as 1173, remained a Gaston Fire workhorse even longer, until 2009, when Gaston received a federal grant to purchase a new engine. Trusty old 1173 was sold to a private party in the Grant County town of Monument.

Even then, it continued to fight fires. Local firefighters who were sent to help with Eastern Oregon blazes returned with reports and photos of 1173 on the fire ground. It was hard to miss with its white color and distinctive platform mounted on the front of the engine designed for firefighters to ride on while battling wildland fires.

In about 2013, firefighters saw the engine in a field in Grant County. It still bore the distinctive “RURAL FIRE DIST.” decals on its doors, although the name “Gaston” had been replaced with “Monument.” Then the trail went cold.

Today, at least seven pieces of surplus fire apparatus sit in a field in Grant County behind the Oregon Department of Forestry station in John Day. In a photograph taken by an “Oregonian” reporter, some are clearly visible from the road, bearing decals from various fire departments. Tucked near the back is a white pumper with a distinctive platform on the front designed for firefighters to ride on while fighting wildland fires. The rest is blocked from view.

The apparatus all are part of a strange felony theft case settled recently, involving Roy Peterson, who purchased surplus fire apparatus over the years with the intent of forming the Monument Rural Fire District.

According to accounts in “The Oregonian” and the “Blue Mountain Eagle,” after taxpayers approved the district, another man was appointed fire chief and Peterson refused to turn over the engines to the department. The press accounts cite affadavits that allege that Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who has been accused of attempting to intervene on behalf of the Malheur occupiers, also intervened on behalf of Peterson, deputizing him into the sheriff’s office and allegedly threatening to shoot the fire chief if he attempted to retrieve the engines. Peterson now faces 10 years in prison at his sentencing, which is scheduled for October.

Grant County court officials declined to comment on whether the distinctive Ford pumper in the John Day impound yard is Gaston’s old 1173, referring all questions to Assistant Attorney General Daniel Wendel. Responding to a public records request, Department of Justice Communication Director Kristine Edmundson denied her agency’s involvement in the case. After a second request, she acknowledged that Wendel is handling the case, but has repeatedly refused comment on whether the white Ford is 1173, stating that despite Peterson’s conviction, the truck is part of “an ongoing investigation.”

The amazing saga of Engine 1173 might not be over yet. Rebuilt from the ashes 33 years ago, it now might, or might

not, be rusting in a Grant County field, cloaked in a mystery denser than the smoke on the day after Thanksgiving 1983.

Contract Publishing

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