Back in the fall of 1888, the only firefighting organization in Fallbrook was a bucket brigade. The only water supply was from well windmills and tanks. When a fire was discovered, a church bell rang out the alarm and everyone within hearing distance would join in to fight the fire. Unfortunately, in 1890 the second block on Main Avenue burned completely to the ground.
In 1921, Mr. John Clark became the first California Division of Forestry (CDF) Fire Warden assigned to the Fallbrook area. When a fire occurred, Fire Warden Clark would hand out canteens, wet sacks, shovels and other miscellaneous equipment to anyone in sight and direct them to fight the fire.
Equipment In Place
The first piece of firefighting equipment, a hose cart, was acquired in 1926. It was pulled to a fire by available manpower and used in conjunction with the newly installed water system on Main Avenue. Water for the new mainline came from a reservoir located on what is now the east end of Dougherty Street.
In 1928, a county-owned Model "A" ford fire truck was stationed in Fallbrook under the auspices of the California Division of Forestry. It was stored at the Tax May's Fallbrook garage. Vic Westfall was Fallbrook's first volunteer Fire Chief.
Volunteer Fire Department
In 1931, the Model "A" truck was relocated to California Conservation Corps Camp and a replacement 1930 dodge fire truck was stowed at Marr's Garage. Carl Palm was then the Volunteer Fire Chief and the Assistant Chief was William G. Thurber.
In 1934, the C.D.F. station was constructed at Red Mountain and the fire truck moved to that location. About 1942, the town of Fallbrook received a 1941 pumper trailer, fire hose, ladders and a pump kit from the office of Civil Defense. A 1938 V8 Ford Chassis, donated by the Fallbrook High School, was converted into a fire truck at the high school bus barn by volunteer firemen under the direction of then Volunteer Fire Chief, Bob Aaberg. About 1945, Carroll Huscher became the Volunteer Fire Chief and later that year Assistant chief Bill Thurber left for two years of Army service. During his absence, the volunteer fire District fell apart and the pumper was sold.
Upon his return, Bill Thurber organized the Fallbrook Volunteer Fire District by a certificate signed by thirteen volunteers and recorded with the County Recorder's Office on April 26, 1947.
In May of that year, a war surplus General Detroit triple combination fire truck was donated by the Chamber of Commerce and the Fallbrook Rotary Club.
The Volunteer department received continual support by donations from clubs, citizens and by fund raising activities put on by volunteer firefighters.
In April 1948, the E & J resuscitator became available and the town's people were asked for donations to purchase one. When donations fell short of the purchase price, the Rotary Club made up the difference.
By July 1948, Fallbrook was one of the first fire departments to use short-wave radio between units, from units to station, and from units to aircraft. Chief Thurber and several volunteers had an old Waco biplane that was used for aerial survey.
Formation of Fire Protection District
Beginning in 1949, Chief Thurber let the Department use his one ton 4x4 military truck, which was converted onto a water tanker.
Also in 1949, a financial committee was set up with the Chamber of Commerce asking each club in town to have a representative on this committee. Four people attended the meeting and the decision was made to educate the public about the advantages of becoming a local fire district. The Fallbrook Local Fire District was formed in 1953. A change in the state law made it more advantageous to become a fire protection district, so the Fallbrook Local Fire District under the Fire Protection District Act of 1961, was reorganized as the Fallbrook Fire Protection District. The first full time paid fireman, Ralph Lash, was hired on August 13, 1957.
New Headquarters and Growth
In 1947, the District was located at Bill Thurber's welding shop at 1019 South Main Avenue. In December 1963, the Department, through federally matching funds, constructed a new headquarters at 315 East Ivy Street and a new substation at 2180 Winterwarm Drive, now known as Station 2.
In 1976, Andy Vanderlaan became the Fire Chief, replacing Chief Bill Thurber, who retired and resided in the town he helped grow until he passed away in 1996.
Station 3 opened in 1976, serving the Olive Hill area. In 1979, Station 4 opened in the Monserate Mobile Home Park to serve the Pala Mesa area. Station 5 opened in 1982 in the Bonsall area.
In 1987, the Fallbrook Fire Protection District reorganized with the Rainbow Volunteer Fire District (CSA-7) to form the North County Fire Protection District.
In 1989, the District implemented the Emergency Medical Defibrillator Program. The District implemented its Alternate Advanced Life Support Program in 1990 with the first single paramedic program in San Diego County.
Chief Vanderlaan retired from the District in 1996 to head up the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Upon Chief Vanderlaan's retirement, Chief Ed Burcham became the Fire Chief/CEO.
His tenure lasted from 1996 until 2003, when he retired from the District after nearly forty-two years of service.
In June of 2003, Chief William Metcalf became the Fire Chief/CEO for the District and he continued to serve as the Chief until his retirement in December of 2015.
During Chief Metcalf’s tenure, the communities of Fallbrook, Bonsall and Rainbow continued to grow and develop, placing new demands on the District.
In addition, Chief Metcalf served as the Treasurer, President and other official roles in the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
During his tenure with the District, Chief Metcalf rebuilt an aging Station 3 in 2008. In 2014, the new Station 5 was built.
After thirteen years with the District, Chief Metcalf retired in December of 2015. Upon his retirement, Chief Stephen Abbott became the Fire Chief/CEO.
Fire Chief Abbott started his career in 1990 as one of the first Paramedics serving the District. He worked through the ranks, serving in numerous positions, to become Fire Chief/CEO in 2015.
Chief S. Abbott 12/2015-Present
Planning for the Future
In July 2003, the Board of Directors authorized Chief Metcalf to proceed with a comprehensive assessment and strategic planning effort to guide the future of the District. An outside consultant was engaged to conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment – comparing the District to national standards and common practices in the fire service – both regionally and nationwide. Following the completion of the assessment, the District immediately embarked on a strategic planning process that resulted in a long-range strategic plan that guides District’s activities and priorities today.
One immediate outcome of the strategic planning process was a July 2004 decision to close the District’s small dispatch center and join the regional dispatch center located in Rancho Santa Fe. This was accomplished in late 2004 and has resulting in significantly better dispatch services at less cost. Another outcome of the process has been the District’s participation in the ‘boundary drop’ program with other northern San Diego County fire agencies. Under this program, the closest available unit is dispatched to emergencies, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, resulting in significant improvement of response times throughout the region.
While always a threat, the specter of wildland fire has emerged as a significant community threat, as the character of the community has shifted from an agricultural community to one that is more of a suburban bedroom community. Large amounts of open space, long-term drought and periodic Santa Ana winds, combine to create a particularly challenging fire environment.
District Fires and Challenges
On February 10, 2002, the community experienced the Gavilan Fire. Pushed by winds that were unusual for February, the fire burned several thousand acres and 43 homes in just a few short hours. While devastating to the community, this tragedy spurred significant community interest in wildland fire risk reduction and resulted in the formation of the Fallbrook Firesafe Council – a community organization committed to making Fallbrook ‘fire safe.’ The Fire Safe Council has developed and published evacuation plans and has successfully obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to conduct public education and clear brush throughout the District.
The District’s communities were not directly impacted by the devastating San Diego County wildfires of 2003. However, the District’s personnel were actively involved in fighting the Cedar and Paradise fires in other portions of the County.
Wildfire once again struck the community in the early morning hours of October 21, 2007, when the Rice Fire was ignited on Rice Canyon Road just south of Rainbow. The Rice Fire was the 26th major fire to start in southern California that weekend, so the normal mutual aid response was slow in coming. Air support was limited by the extraordinary winds. Within a few short hours, the fire crossed I-15 and directly threatened downtown Fallbrook. For the first time in the community history, the entire town was evacuated. Over the next several days, the Rice Fire would consume nearly 10,000 acres and destroyed nearly 240 homes.
In May of 2014, the District and San Diego County was once again faced with numerous fires after a high heat, high winds event resulted in fire storm conditions. In the District, the 'Highway Fire,' which started near Old Hwy 395 north of White Lilac was in heavy fuels that had not burned since the Gopher Canyon Fire in 1970. The fire, which consumed 380 acres, and threatened the Monserate Mobile Home Park, resulted no damage or destruction to homes. Quick interagency cooperation, as well as excellent resident training and action, assisted with this outcome.
On the same date, the 6,300 acre 'Tomahawk Fire,' originated on Naval Weapons Station in Fallbrook. The fire eventually jumped the containment line, threatening the Olive Hill Road area, resulting in evacuations in the area and Camp Las Pulgas and Margarita. The 'Las Pulgas Fire,' also on Camp Pendleton, burned more than 15,000 acres. While the 'San Mateo Fire' burned 1,500 acres. Both fires were on the base. No Fallbrook or Bonsall community structures were damaged. District’s personnel were actively involved in fighting fires in the District and other portions of the County during the 2014 fire storm.
At 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, December 7, 2017, while under a Red Flag Warning, the District was struck by the fast-moving, wind-fed Lilac Fire. During one of the worst fire seasons faced by California in recent history, North County Fire Protection District battled to halt the procession of the fire that began in a basin west of the Interstate 15 and south of State Route 76 along Old Highway 395. Fanned by Santa Ana winds exceeding 40 mph, low humidity and dry conditions, the fire swiftly progressed burning into the Bonsall area. With the potential to burn into neighboring Camp Pendleton, Oceanside and Vista, it was predicted if the strong winds did not subside, the fire would reach the Pacific Ocean. Initially, winds drove flames almost more quickly than people could evacuate, with an estimated 10,000 people from Fallbrook and Bonsall into evacuation centers as mandatory evacuation was ordered. Schools and other community areas were also quickly evacuated as over 1,500 homes were threatened. The Rancho Monserate mobile home retirement community, where Director Harris lost her home, was one of the first and greatest casualties of the fire. The fire proceeded into the San Luis Rey Downs training facility, where 45 race horses lost their lives and two trainers were severely burned. More than 1659 fire personal, 100 fire engines and 22 helicopters,11 fixed wing aircraft, 70 Sheriff personnel, 37 CHP officers, 24 Animal Service personnel and116 Probation staff, along with numerous cooperators, all worked together to halt the fire and secure civilian safety. After the coordinated effort, the fire was fully contained on December 13th. It was determined that the wildfire had burned 4,100 acres, destroyed 114 homes and 55 damaged more, 2 business structures were destroyed with 5 damaged, ninety other outbuildings were destroyed and 20 damaged. More than 77,000 people were affected by the fire, and although six people were injured, some severely, there was no loss of human life.
The Great Recession
The Great recession had a profound economic impact on the District, resulting in nearly a 15% reduction in property tax revenue, the loss of 4 administrative support staff positions, significant delays in maintaining facilities and purchasing of apparatus, closing of the District’s local hospital and the subsequent restructuring of our ambulance delivery system. Through that experience the District reprioritized its finances by creating and funding capital equipment and facilities replacement plans, as well as refinancing its CalPERS Unfunded Accrued Liability (UAL), entering into a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) with the Fallbrook Regional Health District, and flattening out overhead by reducing a Chief Officer position to fund additional support staff and firefighting personnel.
Emergency Services Today
The District currently has 5 fire stations. The District's primary service area is approximately 90 square miles with an estimated population of 52,000 people. The District also provides emergency medical services for 40 additional square miles outside the primary service area. There are 45 full time emergency services personnel, 6 Chief Officers,12 support personnel and 24 Single Role Paramedics and EMTs. The District is covers the communities of Fallbrook, Bonsall, and Rainbow, the latter of which was fully absorbed into District operations in 2018.
The North County Fire Protection Board of Directors consists of 5 members, each representing a distinct election district. They serve 4-year staggered terms, which begin in December.
The Fire District provides a full range of emergency services to the community. Calls to 911 from this area are first answered by the County’s Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) operated by the San Diego Sheriff and located in Kearny Mesa. If the request is for fire or emergency medical, the call is transferred to North County Dispatch JPA (aka “North Comm. Or NCDJPA) – the regional fire and EMS dispatch center located in Rancho Santa Fe. NCDJPA then dispatches the closest available units.
The Fire District is responsible for delivery of emergency medical services in the area. To accomplish this mission, the District operates ambulances staffed with single-role paramedics and EMTs. Since the ambulances must often leave the district to transport patients to the hospital, firefighter/paramedics, with full paramedic-level equipment, are also assigned on every fire engine. This two-tiered EMS delivery system assures that the highest level of prehospital care is provided to patients in the area.
Approximately 70% of the District’s responses are for emergency medical situations. Fire suppression is provided by highly trained firefighters operating state-of-the-art fire apparatus from our fire stations. Every station houses a Type 1 fire engine, which is designed to fight structure fires and respond to medical emergencies. The District also operates several Type 3 engines that are specifically designed and equipped to fight vegetation fires. Firefighters and apparatus routinely participate in the State of California’s mutual aid system, responding to fires as far away as northern California.
Perhaps the most important set of services provided by the District are those related to fire prevention. While a great deal of effort is devoted to being prepared to put out fires, the best scenario is to prevent the fires from starting at all. To this end, the District operates a Fire Prevention Bureau that provides a number of prevention-related services including occupancy inspections, code enforcement, plan checks, fire investigation, and coordinating with the Firesafe Council.
The communities of Fallbrook, Rainbow and Bonsall are considered one of the most desirable places to live in Southern California. The current population growth and District expansion is presenting many new challenges and opportunities for the District.