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Tom Burns

After 65 years, Tom Burns continues to volunteer at the Owasco Fire Department.

The Dunn & McCarthy building, the Deauville Hotel, the Auburn Country Club — if there was a fire large enough to make the news in the last 65 years, former Owasco Fire Department Chief Tom Burns was probably there.

Burns was recently honored at the department's annual banquet for his 65 years of service, a career he said he was privileged not only to have, but to share with an outstanding department.

"I was very blessed to have good people, people that weren't afraid to work," Burns said.

Since joining the department in 1953, Burns said, he's seen almost every aspect of firefighting change.

Equipment, especially, has changed, Burns said while looking at a 1962 photograph of himself and other firefighters flanking the department's founding members.

While Burns and his contemporaries sit atop a tanker truck in the picture, the founders are holding the hand-drawn extinguisher carriage they'd used.

Things have changed even more since then, said Burns' nephew and current department member Steve DeLuca. In the past, firefighters would have taken pride in being skilled pump or hose operators, often working by feel to get, say, water pressure just right.

"Now it's a button," Burns said of modern trucks and their equipment.

The fires themselves have also changed, Burns said. With the ever-increasing amount of plastic in both household items and building materials, even small fires can produce thick, black smoke that's difficult to navigate and dangerous to breathe.

Of course, Burns said, run-of-the-mill fires are plenty dangerous on their own. But he always felt nervous excitement, not fear, as he arrived at a scene — even the 1983 Auburn Country Club fire.

That blaze was so large, Burns said, that one of the department's chiefs mistook the flames cresting over the hill for the sunrise.

Despite the size, because there were no homes near the club at that time, it wasn't until a paper deliverer went to the fire thinking firefighters were already there that anyone noticed, Burns said.

When all was said and done, fire crews, using tanker trucks drawing water straight from the Owasco River, battled the fire from 4:30 a.m. until the next night, Burns said.

"There just wasn't enough water in the world to put that fire out," he said.

Perhaps the biggest change Burns has seen, and one common to almost all fire departments, is the difficulty of attracting and keeping volunteer recruits.

Young people today often have to work two jobs to make ends meet, Burns said. And that, combined with extensive training requirements from the state, leaves little time to dedicate to volunteer.

Burns was careful to note that the department's membership isn't made up of just men. Owasco has been "very blessed," he said, to have many dedicated women members, many of whom have served 20 or 30 years, often as emergency medical technicians.

After a long career in the fire service, which also included time as the Auburn Correctional Facility fire chief, Burns isn't retired from the department.

He might not show up to fires anymore, but he's still a regular around the station and department functions. With 65 years under his belt, does Burns plan to stop?

"Only when they put me down," he laughed.

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2252 or ryan.franklin@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin.

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