GEARHART — Jon Blissett joined the Gearhart Volunteer Fire Department in 1962, and today is the department’s oldest active member.
Blissett looks back at 55 years of firefighting and the changes he’s seen in the community.
Q: How old are you?
I’ll be 80 this time next year. I feel great.
Q: Tell me about your background in Gearhart.
I owned the Chevron gas station in Gearhart right next to the fire station. Then the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) got into the situation with the tanks. They were old, they wanted lots of repairs. I closed in 1992.
Q: I heard something about oil company executives getting worked up over the station’s decor?
I painted whales on the gas station building. They got crazy. They said we’re taking your dealership away from you. I said what difference does that make? I can get the same damn gas and don’t have to do what you guys are telling me to do. After that I didn’t take Standard Oil cards, I took Bank of America cards. It didn’t make any difference to me.
Q: What have you been doing since 1992?
I was a fireman and I clam dug, commercial clam digger. I’m married. I have three boys. One boy lives in the area. He’s a captain on the Tidewater Barge Lines. The other two are out of the area, one in Seattle and the other’s in Grants Pass.
Q: What kind of activities do you do with the Gearhart Fire Department?
I have been there so long I don’t really have a desire to go in and breathe a lot of smoke. I feel like I was in it. We do have younger guys that are really into it, and it’s really good they are.
Q: Things were different when you started?
You might say they were different, but jumping on the trucks and going to the fires was the same. The difference is the improvements between now and then. We didn’t have the modern Plectrons we have now in our home. We had a siren. The siren would go off. We’d respond to the station. I’d be the first one. Pick up the phone and find out where the fire was, mark it on the bulletin board and then get up and go.
Q: Serious fires?
John Osburn, who owned the Gearhart Hotel, was my uncle. That was quite a building. I worked there in high school. There were fires there. The golf course across the street caught on fire. That was a big one.
One time, we were called into a structure fire. There was smoke coming out of the roof and the windows were black. All the firemen — including myself — thought it was a real serious fire. So we pulled the ladder out and got out the chainsaw and started to drill a hole on the roof to vent and I opened the door and there was just smoke in the building that wasn’t like hot smoke, just smoke. There was no smoke coming out of the chimney, but there was a fire in the stove. I said, I don’t think we need to ventilate by cutting a hole in the roof. It’s not hot in here. Well, a squirrel had got up into the chimney and built a nest and plugged up all the ventilation for the fire to go up out of the chimney. Smoke was just filling the room.
Q: Who were some of the memorable people you’ve worked with at the department?
Memorable firemen — there were a lot of them. There’s a plaque in front of the firehouse of all the people who built the station. Denny Holmes. Bill Heckenberg. They’re still alive. They’re older than me. Randy Curs owned the grocery store. When the siren rang, he and I would race down there to see who got there first. The story got out that one time the fire siren rang and I got halfway down to the station and came back and got my car and drove back to the station — which was a block.
Q: Did you ever lose anybody?
Yeah … yeah. We lost a small child in the house right next to the gas station. That’s not something you want to keep in the back of your mind.
Q: You responded to the plane crash in 2008 that killed five people?
Q: Any moments you couldn’t deal with?
I could deal with all of it. The guy on the beach who covered himself with gas, and lit himself on fire, was burning when we got there. Some things we don’t want to remember.
Q: Anything special you want to talk about?
The Fireman’s Ball. I’ve been to many fireman’s ball. It’s always Memorial Day weekend. It’s a fun deal. We had it at the Gearhart Hotel for about seven years, then at a place called the Sands. Then we went to the Fire Hall, and had it in the hall itself by taking the trucks out, which we still do. It used to be where the people would really dress up. It was a different clientele. There weren’t that many younger kids. Now the older people would rather sit at home. Now we have it at the station. We rent a large tent.
Q: How do you feel about the idea of building a new firehouse?
It’s definitely got to be in the making.
Q: Any preference where it should be?
Not really. The location where it is. Or across the street, near the grade school where I went to school. I wouldn’t want to see the park up the hill used. I think (former Gearhart resident) Lesley Miller donated it as a park to stay a park.
Q: How long are you going continue to volunteer?
That’s a good question. I think that’s up to somebody else. The guys are really good guys. There’s always a few … but it seems if they’re there long enough, they get straightened out. It’s more or less just being able to provide a service rather than how long I want to be there. I’ll know.
— R.J. Marx