The earliest mentions of fire protection for the area are found in journals kept by local residents. One such resident was concerned that “the nearest fire station was located in Escondido, twelve miles to the east over a bad road.” An entry made in 1922 spoke of a station open only seasonally by the California Division of Forestry (CDF). In the late 1930s, CDF also opened a station at the fairgrounds in Del Mar.
While World War II was capturing attention and headlines worldwide in 1943, a local event occurred in November of that year that had quite an impact on our community. A disastrous wildland fire, fanned by Santa Ana winds, destroyed brush, farmland and homes as it raced from the Rancho Bernardo area west, through Rancho Santa Fe, and out to the coast in Del Mar and Solana Beach.
At the time of the fire, the only fire protection came from CDF. With no local units or stations, the response to this fire by ranchers, residents, and a few visiting servicemen joined, although a valiant effort, was not enough to contain the flames as they spread relentlessly to the Pacific Ocean.
In its aftermath, our local citizens were determined to bring some type of fire protection to the community and asked CDF for assistance. Leon Janinet, a prominent local resident, was appointed as “Chief Fire Watcher” by CDF. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors supported the formation of a local fire district for the Rancho Santa Fe area and on October 14, 1946, the Board appointed the first Fire Commissioners to the newly formed Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, an all-volunteer District. Janinet, Paul Avery, and Barton Millard were among its first leaders. Thus began the long journey of the District as we know it today.
The first fire chief was William Z. Stomski, a Navy Chief Petty Officer retired, who assumed full-time duties in 1948. He was succeeded by Billy Jarboe and Edward Dutton who had both been trained for firefighting in the State Forestry Service. Rudy B. Duran, who also trained in the Forestry Service, then became Fire Chief in 1953. Chief Duran lived at the fire station. Both the Chief’s house and the garage were built with volunteer labor. When a fire was reported, he sounded the alarm atop the station to summon the volunteers. Accounts of the time report that when a fire was noticed in the area, a phone call was placed to the Chief who set out in the old rig, siren blaring, as he circled the village, slowing down to pick up volunteers. Donations came in and together with District funds an “ancient” 300 gallon per minute pumper was purchased for the District. The first new fire truck, a 1948 Mack 750 gallon-per-minute pumper, was purchased and remained in service until the early ‘70s.
During the first years, district offices were housed in the bungalow of Commissioner Janinet, where all meetings were held. The Fire District was housed in a shed owned by the Irrigation District. Approximately one acre of land was sold to the Fire District by Santa Fe Irrigation District in 1953. The land, which contained a duplex originally built to house Irrigation District personnel, was sold for a consideration of $3,500. In 1951 Commissioners Janinet and Richard Pharr traveled to San Diego to sign for a loan of $19,000, which was used to construct what was known as the village fire station and to renovate the Fire Chief’s quarters. Over the years, many hours of volunteer labor were utilized to construct additional facilities on El Fuego.
In 1956, the three-member Board of Directors hired a new fire chief, one who had recently arrived from his native England. Chief James A. Fox and his family inhabited what is now the living quarters for the Headquarters station. While Chief Fox and his sons, John and Peter, would race to the emergency, his wife Pat would stay behind, answering the phones and radio. She also provided bookkeeping services for the District and helped Chief J. Fox maintain operations within the budget.
Having come from a very formal fire service background, Chief J. Fox knew he had a huge job ahead, organizing the volunteer outfit into a force of trained personnel ready to tackle any fire situation. He obtained permission from the Board to enter into an agreement with the State of California Office of Civil Defense to lend the District a new pumper and rescue truck, augmenting the now aging pumper. Chief J. Fox also hired the first paid firefighters in our community, who at the time were also assisted on calls by employees of the golf course!
The 1960s brought new challenges and changes to the District. Additional garages were built to accommodate the expanding fleet. A training room was also constructed for use not only by the Fire District but by the Red Cross, Boy Scouts and other community groups as well. Once again Chief J. Fox called upon his experiences in England to assist the local population. He recognized that if a person was in need of urgent medical assistance, an ambulance summoned from Oceanside would take too long to arrive. Chief J. Fox and the Board of Directors sought out to design, procure and construct (at the fire station) one of this country’s first Mobile Intensive Care Units. With donated funds, this first “Hospital on Wheels,” which was later named “Daisy” after the wife of Commissioner Janinet, was recognized nationwide as a model program, receiving awards for innovation. In 1970, to further aid in quicker response times, the first 9-1-1 emergency telephone system in Southern California was brought on line in Rancho Santa Fe, preceding all others by more than ten years!
Over the next few years, several more ambulances were constructed at our facility for not only the Ranch, but also surrounding communities. The District staff also constructed several brush trucks, rescue trucks and other additions to our fleet at a fraction of the cost. Many volunteers also donated time and materials to these construction projects.
The communities of Village Park and Olivenhain were annexed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first paramedic ambulances, under the direction of Chief J. Fox, were constructed at the Fire Station and placed into service to serve the entire San Dieguito area. The success of this service was due to the well trained “first responders’, the firefighters on duty.
The Fire District has long believed in joining forces and sharing resources with other local agencies. In the 1960’s, Rancho Santa Fe Board of Directors agreed to a mutual contract to share the Fire Chief’s position with the Solana Beach Fire Protection District.
Over the next few years the community continued to grow and a second fire station was constructed in Village Park in 1979, serving a portion of Encinitas and the Olivenhain Valley. That same year a very costly wildland fire started in the Black Mountain area and burned into the Fire District in the Fairbanks Ranch area. No lives were lost, but six structures were destroyed by the raging inferno.
A significant milestone occurred in 1980. The Insurance Services Office (ISO) came to town and assessed the preparedness of the Fire District. The ISO rates communities and their fire departments, and then sets the insurance rates for the area. Because the Fire District and the Irrigation District had improved their services, the ISO dropped the rating from 6 to a 4, saving some residents as much as 30% on their insurance policies.
Chief J. Fox retired from the Fire District in 1981, and his son, Peter Fox, was appointed Fire Chief. He carried on the tradition of constructing firefighting vehicles and pioneering innovations at the District facilities. Shortly thereafter, a third fire station was constructed in 1983 in Fairbanks Ranch to serve not only Fairbanks Ranch, but also Whispering Palms, Circo Diegueno, and Rancho Santa Fe Farms. The full-time staff swelled to 33 employees.
During this time, the first Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) System in this county was designed and installed by Fire District employees in 1981. This state-of-the-art dispatch system and the reputation of the District led the San Marcos, Deer Springs and Solana Beach Fire Protection Districts to join forces with Rancho Santa Fe to form the North County Dispatch/Joint Powers Agency (NCDJPA) in July 1984.
1987 brought many changes to our district once again. With the incorporation of Encinitas, the responsibility for fire protection for Village Park and Olivenhain was removed from the Fire District and transferred to the newly formed city. In conjunction, the District agreed to sell the Village Park Fire Station for $414,000 to the City of Encinitas and transferred nine personnel to the City.
Reorganization took place on our eastern boundary, dissolving the County Service Area, commonly known as the Del Dios Volunteer Fire Department, and extending our Fire District to the city of Escondido boundaries. The dedicated Del Dios Volunteer Firefighters were brought under the District’s leadership, adding to their training and increasing the forces of the Fire District. 1987 also saw the departure of Chief P. Fox and the Board of Directors appointed Arden L. “Pete” Pedersen as Fire Chief. The community agreed to increase the size of the Board from a three-member to five-member board.
In the second quarter of 1990, nine new firefighters were hired to staff the temporary 4S Ranch station.
The station was located at 10603 Rancho Bernardo Road and consisted of a double-wide mobile home and a metal apparatus building. The new station opened on July 1, 1990, as a result of the development of the industrial complex that was part of the 4S Ranch project. This “temporary” station remained in service for twelve years.
In September of 1990, the District forces were once again challenged by a wildland fire. A fire started by target shooters in Aliso Canyon area consumed the 3,200 acres that lie between the origin and the community of Del Dios. Due to the dedication and commitment of not only our local firefighters, but also of the other communities that provided mutual aid, no lives were lost and only one dwelling destroyed.
Another medical first was achieved by the District in 1991. RSFFPD became the first in the area to train all firefighting personnel to the EMT-D level. This meant that the District’s first responders now had the training and equipment to assist the victims of heart attacks at a higher level than before, increasing their chances of survival.
The new District Administration facility was completed in June of 1992. The second floor of the facility was constructed to house the NCDJPA Dispatch Center, once again a technologically advanced center to serve not only Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, and San Marcos, but Encinitas, Vista, and the communities of Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove as well.
Our fifth Fire Chief, Erwin L. Willis, was hired in June of 1993 to replace Chief Pedersen, who retired after 30 years in the fire service. Chief Willis came to Rancho Santa with 20 years of fire service experience. Throughout his career, Chief Willis spent a lot of time focusing on fire prevention efforts. Those efforts in the District included working with environmental agencies to allow for wildland fuel clearance around structures and roads, developing the fire wildland urban interface fire code in San Diego County, founding FireSafe Councils in San Diego County, and developing Shelter-in-Place communities within the RSFFPD.
In the fall of 1999, the District entered into an agreement with the County of San Diego Emergency Medical Services to provide advanced life support service to augment the EMT-DC first response. District employees attended paramedic training at Palomar College and an assessment paramedic program was implemented. As new employees were hired, firefighter/paramedics were placed on all District engine companies.
During his tenure as Fire Chief, Willis also oversaw the building of two new fire stations. The community of 4S Ranch began to see major development in the 1990s, mandating the need for increased fire services. Station 2 personnel moved out of the temporary trailer and into their fire station on Four Gee Road when it was completed in early 2003. The next year would see the completion of Station 4 near the new housing developments of Cielo and The Crosby along Del Dios Highway.
Following Chief Willis’s retirement in 2005, the RSFFPD selected Nicholas Pavone to be the Fire Chief. Chief Pavone began his career 1975 as a volunteer with the Pismo Beach Fire Department. During his tenure with the Fire District, starting in 1979, he served as a Firefighter, Engineer, Captain, Deputy Chief-Training Chief, EMS Chief, Support Services Chief, Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief in charge of Operations prior to being named Fire Chief. His list of accomplishments as Fire Chief include working with Del Mar, Solana Beach, and Encinitas Fire Departments to form a Fire Management Services agreement and defending the Fire District against the Witch Creek Fire in 2007.
Chief Pavone retired from the fire service in October 2010, at which time Tony Michel assumed the role of Fire Chief. Under Chief Michel’s leadership the Fire District continued continues to grow. In July of 2016, the District merged with the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Fire Depart, increasing it's service area to approximately 50-square miles. The 34,000-plus residents within the District have access to quality fire protection and medical services provided by a dedicated staff of 64 full-time employees. Chief Michel retired in December 2018 and Fred Cox was promoted from Deputy Chief to Fire Chief.
The support that this community gives to us is not seen by any other fire agency. From the beginning, the Fire District and its facilities were often at the center of the community, a relationship that always benefited both. With the continued support by the citizens of Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch, 4-S Ranch, Sun Valley, Del Dios, Elfin Forest, and Harmony Grove, this Fire District will continue to provide its residents with the advanced, high quality protection it has known for years to come.
If you have any additional information about the history of fire protection within the Rancho Santa Fe area that you would like to share, please email your stories or photos to us. We'd love to hear from you!