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New fire chief learns the ropes

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - New fire chief Jay Olson


   Ever since his teen years, Jay Olson, Jefferson County Fire District No. 1's new chief, has found himself drawn to the Central Oregon area.
   From rafting trips on the Deschutes River in the late 1960s to his purchase of property in the Ashwood area in 2004, Olson, 53, has long been a fan of his new home.
   On Jan. 1, Olson, who was selected from 14 applicants, replaced longtime chief Earl Cordes, who retired at the end of December after 28 years with the fire district.
   But Olson is not new to the job. Since his selection at the end of October, he has made regular, weekly treks from his home in Portland to Madras to volunteer his time, and become acquainted with the staff and volunteers of JCFD.
   "I feel extremely fortunate to have been chosen as the fire chief," he said, citing the fact that there are many volunteers in the well-run department.
   "I see my main job as enabling the volunteers, so they can continue the fantastic job they've been doing for years and years for the community," he said.
   Experienced firefighter, leader
   Born in Hillsboro, Olson grew up in Beaverton and Portland, where he graduated from Wilson High School.
   As a teenager in the late 1960s, Olson, his two brothers, and a couple friends would persuade one of their mothers to drive them all the way over from the Portland area and drop them in Maupin to go rafting on the Deschutes River.
   "Then we heard about Whitehorse Rapids," he said, recalling how they were later dropped off in Warm Springs, rafted to Maupin, hitchhiked back, and never told their mothers about their rafting adventures.
   Occasionally they would get a ride into Madras in the back of someone's pickup. "We'd go get something to eat," he said. "Sometimes we'd still have our life jackets on."
   Although he had wanted to be a firefighter from his earliest memory, after high school he played ice hockey with the Junior Buckaroos.
   To pay the bills, he worked for his mother, who is in the real estate business, to renovate properties for one season before getting into the student firefighter program with the Tualatin Rural Fire Department.
   The department paid for his education, and he responded to calls, working a 24-hour shift, before getting 48 hours off.
   On his days off, Olson often served as a whitewater river guide, and even went to the whitewater world championships in Costa Rica in 1991, where Team Oregon placed 10th out of 64 teams from 48 countries.
   Olson volunteered with the Clackamas County Fire District before getting hired first by the Salem Fire Department early in 1978, and later that same year, the Portland Fire Department, where he worked his way up from firefighter to battalion chief.
   Until his retirement as battalion chief at the end of December, he was responsible for 10 fire stations, 10 fire engines, two ladder companies, and a total of about 60 fire personnel.
   Olson is eager to take the reins at the fire district, where he intends to absorb what the volunteers and employees have to say.
   "I really plan to do a lot of listening," he said.
   Even though JCFD has a strong, committed volunteer force, he has plans to visit churches and organizations to encourage more volunteers, particularly "boosters," who wouldn't have to be skilled in firefighting.
   On large fires, for example, he envisions a group of volunteers, including possibly retired people, who could fill air bottles, greet new arrivals, or shuttle firefighters who have finished a shift back to the fire station.
   "They may not want to fight the fire, but we can still use them," he said.
   Olson was pleasantly surprised on his return to Madras. "It's come a long way," he said, remembering the days when it seemed to be more of an industrial town.
   "It's really grown up; it's gotten to be a much more attractive town," Olson said. "They've really done some tremendous planning."