August 1977: Murder, mayhem, misery for small-town volunteer firefighters

This is an excerpt from Fire in a Small Town, Copyright 2013 by Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved. Proceeds from the book were donated, in advance, to the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department.

On August 1, 1977, Ron Hoodenpyl was starting his first full month as the paid Gaston fire chief after 18 years in the role as a volunteer. Friends still were teasing him about how he would earn his pay in such a sleepy little town, yet before the month was over he had presided over many of the worst blazes in Gaston Fire history and had been caught up in a mass-murder mystery that would continue to make headlines for decades to come.

To be fair, August often is the busiest month of the year in Gaston. Wildfire season is at its peak, roads are clogged with cars and motorcycles, Hagg Lake is busy … but August 1977 was different. The summer was hot, so firefighters were wary of the usual trouble spots such as the fields in the Gerrish Valley and the Mount Richmond areas. True to form, those areas erupted, but the real maelstrom was brewing in normally tranquil Laurelwood.

On the morning of August 10, firefighters were called to the fields near Laurelwood Road and Lambert Lane. The hay fields had erupted in flames, and on this hot windy day there was more at stake than hay. With a little bad luck, the blaze soon could be into the forested Chehalem Mountains or even to the residential high school operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This was a fire that required every resource Gaston Fire could bring to bear.

On August 10, 1977, however, Chief Hoodenpyl would find his resources stretched to the breaking point, because a mere four minutes after the alarm was sounded for the Laurelwood fire, another call came in. The strong winds that day had caused a high-power electrical line to snap in an all-too-familiar place: the dry fields off Mount Richmond Road. As bad as the Laurelwood fire might become, the danger at Mount Richmond was even greater. Chip Hoodenpyl was in the first engine to arrive at the Mount Richmond fire that day. “We turned the corner at Patton Valley and Mount Richmond roads,” Chip recalled years later, “And the flames were just rolling right at us, 20 feet high at least. We turned the engine around or they would have burned us up. The flames just rolled right up over the road and kept going. If you’ve never seen (a fire in a standing wheat field), trust me, you don’t want to.”

In 1977, Gaston had not yet been home to an official “conflagration,” or fire of such magnitude that the resources of the entire state are necessary to fight it. Yet either of these blazes had the potential to erupt into something much worse this hot August day.

Back in Laurelwood, the sharp S curves of Laurelwood Road created firebreaks on the north and west sides, so firefighters concentrated their efforts on blocking the spread to the east and south. Alarm after alarm was sounded until by the fourth alarm Gaston had been joined by crews from nearly every fire department in the county. After hours of work, crews knocked down the flames before they could climb the wooded hills to the south. One disaster had been averted, with the fire contained to about 20 acres.

The Mount Richmond fire was more problematical. Only the Tualatin River on the north created a natural firebreak, and the fire wasn’t moving in that direction. Instead it was moving toward the sun-dried hay fields and tinder-dry forests of the Coast Range. The worst case could see this fire spreading into the timberland to the west, which spreads unbroken for 50 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

The good news is that the Pacific Ocean is the world’s ultimate firebreak. The bad news is that this fact was tested and proven in a series of horrific forest fires in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, known collectively as the “Tillamook Burn.” The worst of those fires started just a few miles north of Mount Richmond along Gales Creek, near Forest Grove, and its spread was stopped only by heroic firefighting, eventual rain, and the saltwater of the Pacific.

No one fighting that Mount Richmond fire was thinking that it would spread to the ocean. Then again, as far as we know no one in the 1930s thought the Gales Creek fire would make it that far, either. The brutal summer of 1977 offered as good a chance as any for a repeat. The flames quickly devoured 50 acres, but fire crews called to this second four-alarm fire of the day managed to prevent a repeat of the Tillamook Burn. Honestly, most fires that look like they might develop into the next Tillamook Burn don’t. In fact, most don’t even develop into “conflagrations.” Neither of these fires did, but fighting two such blazes simultaneously is something few departments ever do. They left the volunteers exhausted and in need of rest.

Unfortunately in August 1977, rest was hard to come by, and the next day they were back out at the Mount Richmond fire a couple more times to douse rekindled hot spots. Just when it looked like the last of the hot spots was out, another call came in: A structure fire in Laurelwood. Not just any structure fire, either, but one of the biggest the Gaston area had seen in many years.

Laurelwood had been home to the Seventh-day Adventist Academy since 1904, nine years before Gaston Fire was formally established. The community has enjoyed a peaceful, almost idyllic history since then. The Academy is a sprawling complex of buildings including classrooms, a gymnasium and large boys and girls dormitories. In 1977 the complex also included a furniture factory, and a number of barns, shops and sheds to support the farming operation where students grew much of their own food.

In the smoldering dry summer of 1977, even the smallest spark could touch off an inferno, and that’s what happened one morning in one of the large shops on the Academy grounds. The fire spread quickly through the old wooden building and before Gaston’s crews could stop it, the flames leaped to an adjoining building. Fortunately for the firefighters, the Academy had an excellent water system of its own, plus two large ponds from which to draw if needed (although drawing from the ponds was often difficult because of the frogs and salamanders that clogged the filters of the engines’ pumps).

The ponds were not needed that day, but the school’s water system wasn’t enough to save the buildings. The fire first raged and then smoldered for hours, fueled by chemicals and supplies in the buildings and the searing heat of the August sun. No one was hurt, and firefighters managed to keep it from spreading to any additional buildings. They also prevented it from spreading into the dry fields and brush that surrounds the Academy and creeps up into the wooded Chehalem Mountains. The Academy adjoins the property on which the Lambert Lane fire raged just the day before, so firefighters were aware of the possible consequences. Once again Gaston dodged a bullet and avoided the first formal conflagration in the district’s history. But the month wasn’t over, and on August 12, just two days after crews prevented the Lambert Lane and Mount Richmond fires from becoming infernos and one day after the Laurelwood industrial blaze, Gaston Fire finally had its first official conflagration.

Like the other recent fires, this one started with a small spark. But like all wildland fires in August 1977, it spread quickly. The call came in from the Gerrish Valley area south of Gaston, which straddles the Yamhill Fire District, just on the other side of Mount Richmond from the 50-acre blaze in the Patton Valley two days before. This fire had even more potential for disaster because the Gerrish Valley rises on the west and north into dense forests that stretch nearly unbroken to the sea with even fewer firebreaks than on the Patton Valley side.

Because of the rugged terrain and poorly marked district boundaries, Gaston and Yamhill both had to fight the fire as if it was their own. Not that it mattered which side the fire was on, because in northwest Oregon every fire department relies on every other and boundaries are meaningless when lives and property are at stake. So the two districts worked side by side with crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry and furiously tried to knock down the blaze. Despite their exhaustion, they thought they had succeeded after flames had consumed about 70 acres.

Wildfires are unpredictable, however, so no one was ready to let down their guard. The crews frantically searched for hotspots, and crews from many other agencies continued to race to the scene as backup. Those additional crews were not responding in vain, because a small spark at the edge of the fire suddenly erupted into a fireball. Despite the effort of firefighters from every department in Washington and Yamhill counties, the fire was roaring again, and this time it didn’t want to go quietly. Before the day was over Gov. Bob Straub would make a formal declaration of “conflagration.” Soon the Washington and Yamhill county crews were joined by firefighters from departments throughout the state.

The Gaston volunteers fought the fire deep into the night before they finally were relieved by fresh firefighters from faraway departments. When the fire was out, commanders estimated that 700 acres in the Gaston, Yamhill and state forestry districts had been consumed. Days went by and surveyors on the ground and in the air revised the damage downward to 550 acres and made a startling discovery: the fire had raced right up to and along the Gaston Fire boundary but somehow never crossed into it, missing in spots by only several feet. Gaston’s firefighters were surprised to learn that despite the brutal battering they had taken, they once again had avoided being hosts to a formal conflagration.

Although it turns out the great Gerrish Valley Fire was not officially a Gaston Fire call, it remains the wildfire against which all others are measured to this day. More than 30 years later, the men who were there still talk about August 12, 1977, whenever the hot east winds of summer hit Gaston.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Gerrish Valley fire, the Gaston volunteers had little energy left to talk about anything. After working well into the night on the conflagration, all they wanted was a quiet Saturday at home with their families, but such was not to be, not in August 1977.

Just a couple of years earlier, Henry Hagg Lake had been formed in the northwest corner of the Gaston Fire district with the construction of Scoggins Dam. Although its primary purpose was irrigation, the lake quickly had become one of the primary water-recreation sites in the region, pulling in visitors at a rate Gaston had never experienced before, more than doubling the number of people in the district on a hot summer day. Saturday, August 13, 1977, was the coolest day in a week, but with a high of 95 the lake was packed with people fleeing the heat. Some of the Gaston volunteers would have liked to join them, but they were too exhausted.

But beaten and battered as they were, the volunteers found themselves at the lake that afternoon anyway, called out for one more emotional blow to the gut. A young man, about the age of most of the volunteers, had been out water skiing on the lake when he was hit, and killed, by a boat’s propeller. The call was one that still brings a lump to the throats of the men who responded that day with already ragged nerves. Firefighters grow accustomed to bodies, but never to collecting body parts.

Nor would there be any rest on Sunday, when they were called out several times to put out hot spots that re-ignited at some of the fires from the previous few days, all capping off a week that had been unlike any they had seen before. Those days had been what the Washington County News-Times famously headlined “The Week Washington County Burned.” In addition to the Gaston infernos, fires had swept across much of the rest of the area, and Gaston volunteers had pulled shifts on many of them.

Alfred Wells had one advantage that most of his fellow volunteers didn’t share. Because of the extreme fire danger, his logging business had been shut down, so at least he didn’t have to hold down a job in the midst of this literal firestorm. But he faced other stresses that afflict volunteer firefighters, including pressure at home. Wells recalls returning to the station in the midst of the string of infernos. “Big fight when the wife met me,” he recalls. “‘Are you trying to kill yourself? You haven’t been home for three lousy days! You get your butt in the car!’ Never seen her that excited. But I immediately went home and took a shower and went to bed.” He pauses and sighs as though his body still aches 35 years later. “Man, I was exhausted. We all were.”

Like the men, the equipment was taking a terrible beating in this summer of 1977. To make sure he had at least one piece of apparatus ready to roll, Hoodenpyl turned to an old friend: the department’s 1938 Ford pumper.

Over the decades, old Engine 1170 fought many of Gaston’s most notorious fires. In recent years, however, it had been used only for musters and other events. These days it was better known for carrying the department’s band, led by longtime volunteer and Gaston High School music teacher John Harris, in parades around the region. In August 1977, the old Ford once again became a working fire engine.

Hoodenpyl also had to be creative about manpower. With his volunteers pressed past the brink of exhaustion, he hired “two dependable high school boys” to stay at the station during the day to perform routine tasks … and even respond to minor calls in a pinch, giving the beleaguered regulars some small respite.

In August 1977, as now, there was a small core of volunteers who shouldered the bulk of the work, which involves much more than spraying water on fire. For example, between every call, firefighters have to clean and roll the hose they used. They have to clean, maintain and repair the trucks to keep them ready for the next call, which could come at any minute.

With more than 30 years of hindsight, the men who drove themselves to exhaustion in the broiling sun mostly shrug off the hardship. “I don’t really remember, but I was probably on most of those calls,” John Harris says. And Chip Hoodenpyl, who, among other things, pulled the 72-hour shift with Wells? “It’s what we do,” he says.

But the emotions come back to life as they dig deeper into their memories. Those emotions would be raw after such an ordeal under the best of circumstances, and August 1977 was anything but the best of circumstances. In fact, the nerves of the Gaston volunteers already had been shattered before the first blaze ignited, responding to a scene the likes of which even most big-city firefighters will never see. The Gerrish Valley Fire was a big story locally, but it didn’t receive nearly as much publicity as a call five days earlier. This call made blaring headlines nationally and remained a mystery for 18 years. It still is studied in criminal justice classes around the country. It was the first major call of the incredible month, and it was a call that would weigh heavily on the minds of firefighters as they fought the Lambert Lane and Laurelwood Academy fires.

The call came from a small house along Laurelwood Road, within sight of the Lambert Lane fire and directly across the street from the Academy blaze. It came in the early evening of Sunday, August 7, a warm and beautiful day. This was when the Seventh-day Adventist colony of Laurelwood was at its peak, so Saturdays were nearly silent as people observed their Sabbath. Activities picked up a little on Sundays, but excitement still consisted mostly of sitting on porch swings or roasting corn on the barbecue.

The call to emergency dispatchers was frantic and details were few when the pagers of volunteers went off around Gaston. A Metro West ambulance was in the area and responded. Ron Hoodenpyl was relaxing at his home after Sunday dinner and jumped into his department truck to respond. Hearing the sirens of the rapidly approaching ambulance he waited for it to pass his house, then raced to the scene a few miles away with the Metro West crew.

Gaston’s Rescue 11 was hot on their tail heading up Spring Hill and Laurelwood roads, carrying volunteers John Harris, Jim Prince and Ed Yates. Harris served with Gaston Fire for 30 years and was the band teacher at the high school. Ed Yates was just a year into what turned into a 30-year volunteer career. Yates was so new he wasn’t yet an EMT and really shouldn’t have been on the call, but he happened to be at the station when the call came in, so he jumped onboard with the veterans, Prince and Harris, to gain some experience. No one was prepared for what they were about to see that day.

Dispatchers had very few details. All they knew for sure was that a man was down, but the responding EMTs knew that even calls that sound serious often turn out to be minor when they arrive; for some callers the sight of blood – even a little blood – constitutes an emergency.

When Hoodenpyl and the two paramedics on the ambulance arrived together and ran to the door, they saw more than a little blood. The young woman who had called for help was crying. Moments earlier she had found the 24-year-old son of her boyfriend barely alive in a pool of blood. He had been shot by two men who burst into the house. His leg in a cast from a motorcycle accident a few days earlier, he was not the intended target, nor was he any match for the two burly intruders. Hoodenpyl and the paramedics could do nothing to save him and he died on the living room floor. The scene was horrific, and it was about to get much worse. Across the room lay the body of an attractive young woman named Margo Compton. She had been murdered execution style.

The people of Laurelwood didn’t know much about Margo. Unlike most of the residents who had lived in the valley for years, she was new to the area, fresh from the big city of San Francisco. She lived quietly with her twin 6-year-old daughters and the neighbors accepted her and didn’t ask questions about her past. As it turns out, that past included time in a prostitution ring run by a Bay Area motorcycle gang. After being arrested, she agreed to testify against members of the gang, and several ended up with prison sentences as a result. Margo moved to Oregon to build a new life. She wanted distance between herself and the gang, even though the gang’s leaders never intended to seek revenge for her testimony.

She might have lived happily with her daughters in sleepy little Laurelwood, except that two men, acting without orders, decided to track her down and kill her. On this hot, languid Sunday evening, they had succeeded. The gruesome scene made it obvious there was nothing the Gaston volunteers could do for either of the victims in the front room, and Hoodenpyl ordered everyone out of the house to wait for police and to avoid contaminating the crime scene.

There remained, however, the question of what happened to the twin girls. High school teacher and Gaston Fire band leader John Harris was the one to discover the answer to that question. He went back into the house and into the girls’ bedroom, where he lifted the comforter on their bed. He found them both shot to death. Shot to death, we learned later at trial, while their young mother was forced to watch. Volunteer firefighter John Harris didn’t see the girls die; his agony came a few minutes later, after the killers had fled the scene.

Gaston firefighters were helpless to do anything, and their direct involvement in the call ended quickly as detectives swarmed the house looking for clues. Those clues would lead to the killers, but not for 18 years. When the two men finally went on trial in 1995, the Bay Area gang broke with tradition and gave its members permission to testify against the suspects. That surprise move stunned the prosecution and made the trial a media sensation. Gaston and Laurelwood once again were thrust into the national spotlight for a Sunday way back in August 1977 that everyone just wanted to forget.

In the end, August 1977 was not the busiest month in Gaston Fire history, at least not in number of calls. That honor belongs to an August nearly 20 years later. In fact, after the terrible accident on Hagg Lake, things returned to normal quickly, and just three days later Gaston residents could take time with the rest of the nation to mourn the death of Elvis Presley. But within the span of one month – actually in a span of little more than one week – the volunteers of Gaston Fire and their newly salaried chief answered the call for five of the most difficult and memorable incidents in the department’s 100-year history.