By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

All fired up

Submitted photoKen and Kris Bilderback teamed up to co-write “Fire in a Small Town: How Volunteers Civilized the Rural West, and How Civilization Betrayed Them.”
Submitted photo
Ken and Kris Bilderback teamed up to co-write “Fire in a Small Town: How Volunteers Civilized the Rural West, and How Civilization Betrayed Them.”

He’s still putting words on paper, but with a modified goal. Whereas he once strove to be accurate and thorough in bringing news of the day to readers, his new writing gig demands a somewhat different discipline.

He still does everything he can to make his written words ring true, but he now often adds an element of exaggeration to an interesting and exciting — even dramatic and thought-provoking — narrative.

Using lessons learned from a century and a half of local history, as well as his own past experience, he crafts commentary on topics of concern today.

He delves into period newspapers, history books, documents and letters in search of stories that supply fodder for his assessments, some of which have fomented controversy in certain quarters.

Participants who long ago passed from the scene and circumstances surrounding their dealings and decisions are brought to the fore. Then it comes full circle with a critical look at the current outcome of those actions.

Bilderback has penned three books since retiring.

His first, “Wheels on the Bus,” chronicled a cross-country trip he took in his late teens resulting in some experiences that altered his life perspective. Reliving, at least in memory, a year of his life by writing down his recollections, “Bus” may have been ego-bruising, but it was also uplifting in that it garnered him a 2011 New York Book Festival award.

His second book, “Creek With No Name, How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon,” is a compendium of 36 short stories revolving around Gaston’s Wild West days.

“Creek” provided him with a platform where he could express his views on the surprisingly hectic history of Gaston from its rough-and-tumble frontier days to its turbulent struggles during the Great Depression and beyond.

He freely intertwines fact and fiction to create an interesting read, but somehow manages to make Gaston look good, or at least guiltless, even when bad things occur within its borders.

“Fire in a Small Town,” is Bilderback’s third book. And it takes the same tack as “Creek.”

The book once again centers on Gaston, a tiny place by anyone’s definition. Its population was estimated at 653 residents in 2012, and its commercial core covers only a couple of blocks flanking Highway 47.

Accounts of the town’s evolution, as seen from the perspective of its struggles with fire safety, afford a cogent view of the place at different points in time.

Over the years, fire has been a pretty big deal in Gaston, nestled as it is against one of the first foothills of the Coast Range. Ditto for the surrounding farmland. where field fires once loomed large as a summer threat.

All in all, the documentation of local history seems well served. However, as the reader is drawn in, the hammer falls on some touchy subjects.

A couple of quotes seem appropriate at this point. These are not Bilderback’s words but rather ones he chose to include from others in “Fire,” owing to their descriptive impact:

n “For the time being, the intentions and ambitions of the people of Gaston exceeded their expectations.”

n “It wasn’t about money. It was about pride. Pride in your community and pride in your own personal life.”

n “I’m still in awe of how little Gaston town takes care of its own.”

Mill fires were a nightmare scenario for a timber town. In mid-summer, sawdust filled the air inside a mill. It could grow so thick a single spark could set off a massive conflagration.

Mountains of hay stacked in large shed-like structures also posed a constant threat, in their case, from spontaneous combustion. And at the time, there was no way to avoid the hazard; you just had to live with it.

At least one of the legendary Tillamook Burn blazes came within a mile or so of Gaston before petering out. The first, coming in 1933, consumed 315,000 acres. The second, following in 1939, put Gaston at ground zero.

Additional fires in 1949 and 1951 treated the town to the shrieking sound of an air raid siren acquired during World War II. A bell, used for decades to sound the fire alarm, was given to the Catholic Church when the siren was acquired.

What a small town firefighter encounters can truly range as the old saying goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous. This excerpt from “Fire” provides a snippet of the author’s insight:

“The reality is that being a firefighter in a small town never has been as simple as just putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. The things rural volunteers do rarely involve coming home smelling of sewage, but they can range from humdrum to humorous to heroic,” he writes.

As much as Bilderback lavishes praise on the courage and self sacrifice of the town’s volunteer firefighters, he does not speak kindly of the ambulance services. A chapter titled “The Ambulance Wars,” leaves no doubt as to his sentiments.

The author’s strong beliefs and ability to publicly air them in print precipitated his sudden resignation as the Gaston Rural Fire Distruct spokesperson in April 2013.

In making this decision, he mentioned conflict with other district personnel and the possible merger with the Banks Fire District, which he felt could disrupt the cohesiveness currently enjoyed by the Gaston group.

Mind you, this has nothing to with the dedication and expertise of well-trained EMTs, only with the outrageous fee that can suddenly hit an unsuspecting family, and how ambulance services vie with one another for juicy jurisdictions.

It must be remembered that these days, fire departments large and small go out on medical calls 10 times as often as they do on fire calls. This coupling of fire and ambulance service became the norm in the 1970s.

Mom falls down the stairs. She’s pretty banged up, so you need to get her to the hospital. But she’s lying there moaning, crying out in pain when anyone tries to move her. So it’s time to call 911.

The EMTs arrive. They get mom stabilized, load her onto a stretcher and rush her off to the hospital.

Several days later, a bill arrives from the fire department. You owe $1,600!

Now that your interest in the fire-oriented side of Gaston has been sparked, please know the author will be busily promoting his book throughout the area in July and August.

His local tour includes a book signing on Saturday, July 27, at NW Food & Gifts, as part of July’s Art and Wine Walk, and a benefit signing for the Yamhill County Historical Society from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. August 17 at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center.

The book can also be purchased on Amazon in both physical and electronic forms, as well as by visiting the Yamhill County Historical Museum in Lafayette or e-mailing the author at

And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — taking in a cache of well-documented commentary on some long-simmering subjects that have aroused heated reactions in certain circles.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS