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100 years of history, heroism, heartache

Women, 911, cellphones, paid chiefs all bring change to fire departments


by: COURTESY PHOTO - Fire in a Small Town was released earlier this month by Ken Bilderback, former Public Information Officer for the Gaston Rural Fire District.Released last week, Ken Bilderback’s new book is filled with gripping stories of heroism and humor, a fascinating chapter on “ambulance wars” and a look at historical trends such as the emergence of female firefighters and the switch from volunteer to paid fire chiefs.

Relevant to fire departments anywhere and to volunteer firefighters in particular, “Fire in a Small Town” primarily focuses on the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department, liberally sprinkling iconic Gaston names such as Hedin and Hoodenpyl across its pages.

The book also hints (sparingly) at Bilderback’s complaints about the current fire chief, Roger Mesenbrink, who is never named (See sidebar on page 6).

Bilderback, who volunteered as public information officer for the Gaston Rural Fire District for five years until he resigned in April amid tensions with Mesenbrink, has donated his estimated royalties from local book sales to pay off the volunteers’ $3,500 debt for a used rescue vehicle.

Timed for release in 2013 — Gaston Fire’s 100th anniversary year — the book begins with a 1962 story of then-fire chief Ron Hoodenpyl forcing himself back into a charred Laurelwood home to retrieve the bodies of a pregnant mother and infant daughter.

From there, the litany of grisly murders, charred bodies, chainsaw decapitations, iron hooks through the head and more would put the average slasher movie to shame — if the incidents weren’t spread out over 100 years and 183 pages and balanced by more quirky calls such as the report of a baby goat someone had abandoned in the town’s phone booth.

Bilderback’s wife, Kris, combed more than 100 years of News-Times archives to help bring the town and the fire department to life, including the paper’s 1913 announcement that “Gaston has arrived” because it finally had “an engine to fight the demon flames with” and “a band of sturdy volunteer fire laddies.”

Bilderback charts historic trends such as the decline of house fires and the rise of emergency-medical calls, which now make up nearly 90 percent of the department’s load.

He follows the evolution of Gaston’s alarm system from a large iron bell — bought for $88 in 1913 — to an air-raid siren added during World War II, to a phone tree that included the Gaston Market and Ace Tavern, to today’s digital pagers and cellphones.

Bilderback also follows the rise of women (Deon Hoodenpyl in 1996 was Gaston Fire’s first), starting that chapter with an impressive 2008 anecdote that involves current volunteer Megan Reynolds and a fire engine parked on a wasp’s nest.

He covers the transition from volunteer to paid fire chiefs (Ron Hoodenpyl got his first paycheck in 1977 after having served as volunteer chief since 1959) and the complex dynamics accompanying that shift.

And he just tells a whole lot of fascinating stories: two Front Street fires that threatened the whole town, the 1983 burning of the fire station itself (then located in what is now the Gaston Library); the firefighter who answered a heart-attack call that turned out to be for his own father; wheat-field conflagrations that produced “flames as tall as a three-story building” and that moved and sounded “like a dump truck at highway speeds;” the bucket-brigade hastily formed on Christmas day 1944, from the Tualatin River to a burning house in Cherry Grove, which at that point was not officially covered by Gaston Fire.

Some anecdotes are more recent, such as the 2008 story of brothers Ken and Matt McCandless spotting and quelling a remote fire with garden hoses, or current volunteer Jerry Hoodenpyl’s creative control of an incident that started with a boy’s bike crash and ended with two men struggling over a shotgun.

To express the heart and soul of Gaston Fire, Bilderback turns to Josh Smith, an Iraq war veteran and former Gaston volunteer firefighter. “It wasn’t about money. It was about pride,” said Smith, now the lead singer for the Trask River Redemption band. “Pride in your community and pride in your own personal life.

“The place just oozed character and integrity. I’m still in awe of how little Gaston town takes care of its own.”

Author adds dash of gripe to book's recipe

After 100 years of putting “the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Gaston Fire’s volunteer-firefighter supply, as in other rural departments, is “dangerously low and getting worse,” according to author Ken Bilderback.

Some of the shrinkage may be from self-inflicted wounds, Bilderback suggests, writing that “old prejudices could be the death knell for agencies unwilling to accept change.”

While most of his new book, “Fire in a Small Town,” covers the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department’s vivid history, as well as more general firefighting and volunteer issues, Bilderback refers directly in the book's two-page Afterword to his concerns about the department and Gaston’s "paid chief” (Roger Mesenbrink, whom he never names).

He also mentions the "bitter betrayal" he felt when department volunteers all publicly sided with the chief and failed to back up Bilderback's concerns, "but in light of the intimidation and retaliation that I and others have felt for speaking out, it wasn’t entirely surprising.”

Elsewhere the tension seems to surface indirectly. The book’s dedication to former fire chief Ron Hoodenpyl, for example, (“Kind, smart, gentle and brave, he’s everything a fire chief should be”) can seem like a subtle snub of Mesenbrink.

But because much of Bilderback's critique of firefighting issues can apply to fire departments generally, the average reader is left to guess which statements might reveal Bilderback's actual view of the Gaston department:

n "... under a weak or unscrupulous leader, a fire department can end up looking like a small-town theater production of 'Lord of the Flies,' with rough and tumble volunteers battling each other over crumbs of power.”

n “Paid chiefs use standards ... for promotion and continued service by volunteers, but also to selectively purge the department of volunteers who threaten their primacy.”

n "Small town fire departments often are run as a family business ... Given the wrong family, power is hoarded and used to settle simmering feuds within the department and the community.”

One thing Bilderback is clear about: “This book was, and still is, intended to honor Gaston Fire’s Centennial. Sadly, there won’t be a Gaston Fire bicentennial, or even sesquicentennial. Changing demographics and other forces ensure that at some point Gaston will have to merge with other departments to survive.”



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