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Joining in 1970 as a volunteer, Canby man continues to serve with no retirement date in sight

It all started on a September evening in 1970 with a single question asked among friends around a campfire.

"I was down at the Tillamook Trask River with a friend of mine," Canby's Wayne Austen said. "We were riding motorcycles, and at the campfire that night, he said, 'You want to be a Canby volunteer firefighter?' I said, 'Well that sounds like a lot of fun.'"

PMG PHOTO: KRISTEN WOHLERS - Wayne Austen has served at Canby Fire for 50 years.Now, Austen is celebrating 50 years of service at Canby Fire — something no one else has ever done.

He currently works part time as a division chief and volunteer coordinator, and he isn't going anywhere just yet with his retirement date currently set for "someday."

"For 73 years old, I guess I'm lucky that I can still do this," Austen said. "Most guys my age are down in Arizona sunning themselves, but I'm still here. I like what I do, and I hopefully can do it for a while longer."

A lot has changed at Canby Fire District in the years he's been there. It has gone from an almost exclusively volunteer staff answering 1-3 calls per week in a town of 2,300 to a large paid staff answering 12-15 calls per day in a city of nearly 18,000 people.

The good old days

Back then, when he was first asked to join the fire department at age 23, Austen was finishing up his time in the Oregon National Guard, and he and his wife Connie were starting a family. He joined the volunteers at Canby Fire just a week after agreeing to it in what would become a busy, but meaningful time in his life.

The next year, he opened his own business, Austen's Body Shop. He also worked as an instructor at Clackamas Community College in the autobody program for 23 years.

Austen recalls volunteering with other business owners in town and leaving for fires at a moment's notice.

"When I first started my business, we'd close the shop down, hang a sign saying we'd gone to a fire, and Charlie (Pottratz) and I would jump in the rig and run up and jump on a fire engine," Austen said. "… We rode on the tailboard. Half the time, you were still putting your coats on and your helmet on, and they'd throw their arms around you and make sure you didn't fall off. Then you finally got all set, and the engine kept going. …

"We might get back (to work) that day, and we might not."

Fortunately, the body shop customers were less worried about the status of their cars and more focused on thanking Austen and Pottratz for their fire service.

Clackamas County wildfires in 2020

Still, it's those words of thanks that make it all worthwhile for Austen, even amid times as trying as the recent Clackamas County wildfires —a catastrophe Austen had never before experienced in his 50 years.

"A lot of us have never seen this kind of thing around our community," Austen said. "We hear of these big fires in California — someplace else. But not here. Not this close. On the other side of the mountain. Every year, we go on the other side of the mountains or up the Columbia … but to actually be on alert here was amazing."

Austen was on scene at the fires near Molalla and Colton, where many took the time to offer their gratitude.

More family help

His wife Connie was involved, too, as a part of Canby Fire's rehab group — a team of people who checked up on firefighters with temperature checks, water, food and so on.

"She's been in the fire department as long as I have," Austen said.

Indeed, Connie first served in the women's auxiliary long ago, has spent many years alongside her husband, and now is part of the rehab group.

The rehab group works alongside paid staff, chaplains and volunteers. But nowadays, volunteers are hard to come by, Austen said, and the department is relying more and more on interns to fill that role.

In a way, the district mourns the loss of those volunteer firefighters from the good old days, and the crews are thankful they have held on to one of them.

"Guys like Wayne, you just don't find anymore," said Canby Fire Chief Jim Davis. "There's no way of describing it. You just don't find the caliber of somebody that's truly committed to the community as Wayne is. Anymore, we're going with interns and people that want to be firefighters. And back when Wayne started, it was because if he didn't volunteer here, who was going to respond to emergencies?"

Davis added, "I know that there's not a person here that doesn't respect Wayne and doesn't respect his opinion because they know he's done it, and he's been in their shoes. From the paid to the volunteer, everybody just totally 100% respects him."

A family of firefighters

The fire community is not losing Austen anytime soon, but when it does, there are firefighters in his family to carry on the tradition.

"I'm proud of the fact that we have three generations of firefighters — myself, my son in-law and my grandson," Austen said.

Austen's son in-law Sean Brown started his firefighting career in Canby and moved on to Clackamas Fire, where he retired before accepting a position at Black Butte Fire.

Austen's grandson — Brown's son Ethan — recently got a job at Umatilla Fire.

Austen's son Tim also worked as a volunteer at Canby for a stint, and his granddaughter Lauren Brown currently works as a 911 dispatcher.

"I guess the fire service kind of runs in the family," Austen said.

Austen and Connie have three children — Cheri and her husband Sean who have three kids (Jacob, Ethan and Lauren); Tim and his wife Becca who have four kids (Isabelle, Natalie, Parker and Reagan); and Christopher who has one kid (Donovan).

In the coming years, Austen plans to take his wife on some of the vacations she so desires, as difficult as it is to leave his rural Canby property and the fire department behind even for a couple weeks' time.

"I enjoy doing this. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here," Austen said. "I enjoy being a part of a team, which we are. I'm just a very small part, one spot of it. But I enjoy being here and being a part of this organization. It's a great bunch of people."

Kristen Wohlers
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