Chief Fox has built an arsenal of engines and tankers unlike anything else in the United States.
James Arthur Fox drove east from his home in Del Mar one day in 1957 looking for a new job. He was working then as a painter for an interior decorator while supporting a wife and two sons.
When the plumbing broke or a snake was discovered in the pantry, a call to Jim Fox brought out able-bodied firemen eager to help.
Because he had been in the United States just a year, his British accent was pronounced — which is why, when Jean Griset opened her front door to this impeccably polite stranger, she hardly understood a word he said, other than he wanted to talk to her husband, Ray, about becoming the new fire chief of Rancho Santa Fe.
Fox briefly described his schooling and rise through the ranks of England’s prestigious fire service and his desire to return to the profession, left his telephone number for Ray Griset, who was head of the community’s fire board, and left with a parting ‘ Cheerio!”
The fire engine pumps are mounted at the rear, rather than the side, a throwback to British engines.
He rather liked the Rancho, as he called it, after driving along its winding streets shaded by eucalyptus trees and past secluded homes surrounded by patches of forest, crowning the tops of rolling hills. It seemed a proper place to rear his boys and run a fire station. He had come to America so his sons could have a brighter future, but most of what he’d seen in Southern California was too relaxed and informal for his tastes. The Rancho, however, was a bit different, more refined.
Few ever doubted that Peter Fox was intended to succeed his father as chief.
Not long afterward, he moved his family into the fire station and took command as the village fire chief. His department consisted of a couple of groundskeepers who lived at the Rancho Santa Fe Inn, his wife and two boys, and some equipment that, frankly, was not properly up to snuff. Peter, 14, and John, II, manned the phones and took on other chores, his wife kept the books, and Chief Fox set about putting his house in order.
Circo Diegueno fire, Sept., 1979. Peter Fox got out of his car and stood beside it, staring east at the smoke rising from Black Mountain.
The fire board, it turns out, didn’t bother to check into Fox’s past when it gave him the job. Its three members were all new to the running of a fire department, and up till then, their only order of business had been the firing of the old chief, a man with no formal fire training whom they didn’t particularly trust.
Circo Diegueno fire. “Any dummy knows that if there had been proper leadership of that department, they could have saved those homes."
They needed a hardworking, honest man capable of running an efficient department on a frugal budget and who could start immediately. ‘'We were just lucky that he was poor and hard up and needed a job,” says Ray Griset, who, twenty-four years later, is still on the fire board. "We were no experts, we had no philosophical background to deal with. We had all just gotten mixed up in this and our first impression of him was that he knew what he was doing. We thought we had a good man, and inside of six months we knew.”
Rancho Santa Fe had about 350 homes then, which didn’t provide much of a tax base to fund the department, and the local residents didn’t want to pay any more than they had to for fire protection, so Fox had to be careful of each dollar he spent. And though pleased with his appointment, he didn’t relish his return to the baser duties it entailed; he had worked that end of the profession before.
Fox had been formally trained in England, which had training quite unlike America, where hanging around the firehouse could lead to a job as an on-call volunteer, and eventually to a couple of shifts a week. He’d been graduated from the Institution of Fire Engineers, where he received a diploma that, to him, was "just like a doctor’s or lawyer’s.” The English service at the time was highly regimented and young Fox was subject to unannounced white-glove inspections and strict protocol. He addressed his superiors with “Sir” and he jumped to their commands.
At the outbreak of World War II he was attached to the Ash Street Fire Station, situated in one of the most densely populated areas of Manchester, an inland port east of Liverpool and connected to the Irish Sea by a thirty-five mile shipping canal. Within the city were located strategic munitions and engineering plants, and thus it became an important target during the Nazi aerial attacks of 1940 and ’41. Fox was among the men who worked night and day to save Manchester from flames; he recalls forty-nine successive nights of incendiary bombing. Later, he took charge of a pump crew in nearby industrial Birmingham. The English learned a lot about fire fighting during those hectic months of continuous bombing, and Fox would not forget. “A lot of it was trial and error,” he recalls. “We had different authorities each going their different ways; nothing was standardized.” Fox arrived in Birmingham with Manchester equipment, only to discover that the two would not couple, and his pump crew watched sections of Birmingham burn to the ground as they stood by impotently with the wrong-size nozzle. “There’s nothing more disconcerting than not being able to function because your equipment won’t marry,” he says. Before the war was over, England had consolidated its 1550 separate fire departments into one agency, and after the war, the great majority of departments continued under the central authority of a single government employee. By the time he emigrated, Jim Fox was an officer in charge of training; he barked to recruits the orders he had once followed himself; he commanded the respect he used to give.
Supervising his wife and sons in Rancho Santa Fe was a far cry from the days of regimen and glory. "I'd gone through the business of polishing brass and the boot camp. I’d come from being a commandant of one of the biggest training schools in England. And I come here and I’m back to polishing brass. From a big city, to come down is a . . . what can you say ... a step back to the Dark Ages.” Once the equipment was shined and the station hosed out, he couldn’t help but recall the earlier days of polishing floors in the officers’ quarters at Manchester, of watching his peers bring their leaders the afternoon tea. He liked that aspect of the service and he wanted to bring it to the Ranch. Despite its humble beginnings, the place could be turned around.
The Ranch grew slowly. By 1980 it was home to about 4000, a place, as Fox once said, where “only people with money can live” — expensive doctors and more expensive lawyers, successful executives and retired celebrities, patrons of the arts and patrons of politicians. And each of these wealthy and powerful residents had at least one thing in common: when they needed help, they called Jim Fox. If the house caught fire, a call to Fox brought out a fire crew in one of his custom-made engines. A heart attack summoned one of Fox’s ambulances. Their burglar alarms fed directly to the station, alerting the Ranch's security patrol, which also was under Fox’s supervision. When the plumbing broke or a snake was discovered in the pantry, a call to Jim Fox brought out able-bodied firemen eager to help. A cat in a tree, an overflowing sewer — there was no job so big or small that Jim Fox refused to respond. And after he instituted 911 emergency dialing, making the Ranch one of the very few communities in the nation with such service, the firehouse was only three digits away. Fox had succeeded in making his station the center of one of America’s wealthiest towns, and he was undeniably the center of the fire station. Folks thought of him as the mayor, as though a snapshot of Jim Fox climbing out on a limb to rescue a terrified kitten was forever frozen in the public mind. Some felt they owed their lives to Chief Fox; they all entrusted him with their peace of mind, and many with the keys to their front door. Fox was affable, cordial, and dignified, with his British accent and his cultivated charm. People knew that Fox was a strict disciplinarian and that he ruled with the confidence of an autocrat, qualities that found approval in a community of managers and executives. He built one of the most unusual fire departments in the United States — innovative, personal, eccentric. dynastic. He was well loved and respected, though feared by some, even despised.
“Most of us couldn’t stand the man,” says a fireman who is usually quick to defend the chief. “He was arrogant, pompous, overly critical. He was horrible to live with, an impossible man to live with. A very foreboding, intimidating man who ruled by his physical presence. But everybody respected the shit out of him.” Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, left. Jim Gipner, for one, worked under Fox for twenty-six months, until the tryanny finally got to him. He says he wanted to leave more than anything in the world and took two tests with the nearby Encinitas fire department in April of 1977, passing the second. In both, part of the exam included a one-mile run. the first two times he'd run a full mile in his life. In his last try, he placed second overall. “I ran faster than 1 really could,” Gipner recalls. “When it was over I thought I was going to die. I wanted out of there [Fox’s department] so bad I ran faster than my body was capable of.'' And as Gipner wanted out, so did many others, because while Rancho Santa Fe is as nice a place as you can work in, you weren’t working for the community, you very definitely worked for Jim Fox.
Wilbur Ponchot worked for Fox until one day his heart gave out and he was rushed to Scripps Hospital and put under intensive care. He was retired from the fire service while in his hospital bed. Ponchot’s weak heart was not news to him or Fox, for he’d been Rancho Santa Fe’s ‘'country” deputy sheriff before his condition led to early retirement. He had once worked as a volunteer fireman and was a licensed electrician, so Fox, who had the authority to do so. hired him as the captain of the Solana Beach fire station, which was then undergoing some administrative changes. The Solana Beach fire board had dismissed its chief in 1964 and immediately asked Rancho Santa Fe if it could borrow Chief Fox for a few months while they straightened things out. It didn’t take the Solana Beach board long to recognize Fox’s talents — he quickly showed them how to pare their budget by a third. Impressed, they asked to keep him aboard and Fox agreed to divide his energy between the two departments.
Ponchot (who pronounces his name poncho) put his construction experience to use as the inspector of the town’s buildings, making sure they met fire codes. He admits he didn’t think much of Fox’s leadership and objected to the public harangues he and his men endured, but he liked the job and didn’t confront his chief. Then in early 1971 a devastating fire hit a row of Solana Beach condos and he had to take the blame. Ponchot faulted the local water district, which, he says, turned off crucial hydrants some time that afternoon without informing the station. The scenario was a little baffling to him, and equally frustrating were Fox’s orders to shoulder the blame and not create animosity. Ponchot recalls the pressure put on him after that fire and the daily telephone calls from Fox, screeds he tried to ignore. But then one day Ponchot sat down at the station and told his men he was having another heart attack.
No one heard from him for several years after his disability retirement, and then in 1976 the San Dieguito Citizen received and printed a letter written by Ponchot from his home in Jefferson, Texas, in which he belatedly confessed to the people of Solana Beach that he had falsified fire reports under orders from Chief Fox. It was the first time anyone had suggested that the chief might not pass a white-glove inspection, and it caused a stir. Ponchot, still living in Texas, claimed that just prior to a 1969 grading of the fire station by an insurance underwriters association. Fox ordered him and the men on duty to begin a meticulous search through fire reports of the past years. Any reports that might have damaged the department’s rating with the insurance association were to be destroyed and new, altered ones created. Though Ponchot’s conscience troubled him for what he took to be fraud, to others, the alleged actions seemed nothing more than victimless crimes meted out against the insurance companies. Even in denying the accusation today. Fox downplays any possible illegality: “I mean, when all’s said and done, he writes in to say I fudged — not for any personal gain, you understand — but to help us get a lower grade. I mean, if I’d done that ... my history over the years has indicated I didn’t do that, because I’ve had different persons who’ve evaluated it.” Several groups did look into Ponchot’s charges and none could find any corroboration from firemen or department records. The Solana Beach Fire Board assigned Fox himself to investigate, the county grand jury conducted three interviews, and the district attorney’s office took note.
Ponchot says he never expected that documents would have been left around to prove his allegation, and he believes rumors that they were burned by firemen. Fox has his own theories of why Ponchot would bother to bring up a seven-year-old charge. “He was prompted by somebody else, really, just to get at me,” says the chief. “He had a history of that kind of thing, complaining about things that were after the fact, really. I have to feel a bit sorry for him. He’s sick, physically sick. He may be a little bit mentally, but I don’t know. I can’t say to that. I’m just qualifying the fact that one never understands the reasons for these things.” Fox recalls giving Ponchot a job when he was in need of work. “Now he’s living on a good pension on account of us, on account of a heart attack. He’s doing very well I guess. . . . Ditched his first wife, which I was very unhappy about.” The confrontation with Ponchot’s charges was a prelude to more serious troubles for Fox. Of his most determined detractors, the paramedics, he says, “If that whole story was published it would, make your hair curl.”
Fox started ambulance service through his department in 1968. The Ranch, geographically isolated and populated with many elderly people, needed more reliable emergency care than that provided by privately operated services some miles away. Fox had the idea for a “Hospital on Wheels,” as he called it, similar to the British ambulance corps he’d known. He sold the concept to a man on the Ranch who gave him $15,000 toward building an ambulance, and to the county board of supervisors, which put $23,000 toward creation of a special ambulance district. Fox’s innovative idea was well received. He and his men built two ambulances (from converted delivery vans) and Fox wore his third hat: chief of an ambulance district. In 1975, under a federal grant, his five ambulance drivers went to school and became full-fledged paramedics. When they returned to Fox’s command, with three additional paramedics, they felt they had no true allegiance to Fox or his rules, and saw no purpose in his constant reprimands. Yet they were confronted daily with this bullheadcd chief, a man who lorded over them no differently than he did over his firemen, who told the paramedics they’d be nowhere if not for him. Those were fighting words to some of them, who had put themselves through school without even knowing of a Chief Fox. They thought him a despot who was damaging their highly sophisticated service.
Bob May was there from the beginning, starting as an ambulance driver and leaving in anger and frustration eight years later to work in construction. By then, the firemen weren’t allowed to speak to the paramedics, who were taking their complaints to the county, the public, and the media. (One fireman who was friendly with some paramedics quit rather than abide by that rule.) May says he was tired of the politics and “the bullshit that goes on in an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. You never knew who was going to talk to the chief and what would be said. Occasionally your conversations were overheard and soon the chief would learn of it, and then there’d be trouble.” Fox encouraged his men to tell him of any dissension within the ranks. May says. “He was the kind of person who would lead you on, assure you it would be in the strictest confidence. Sooner or later, though, it would be all over.” Pat Morgan, a paramedic under Fox for three years, describes the chiefs tactics as “divide and conquer.” “He’d get you alone in his office and tell you what assholes everybody else was, but that you were all right,” Morgan recalls. “Then he’d tell you things another paramedic supposedly told him about you. That way he’d create mistrust. Inner turmoil was to him a benefit. He took great pains to keep us subservient to him.” The paramedics resisted, and sought out anyone who would listen.
The local press in the San Dieguito area (roughly, from Leucadia south to Del Mar) has always been competitive; at any time no less than three newspapers have contended for the same market. During the paramedic revolt, they were the San Dieguito Citizen, a weekly headquartered in Solana Beach; the Coast Dispatch, published twice weekly in Encinitas, and the San Dieguito Extra, a short-lived attempt by the daily Oceanside Blade-Tribune to expand south. The last two covered the paramedic issue closely, and many of the reporters heard for the first time what it was like to work for Jim Fox. “It was like an English caste system,” one fireman said. “You’re one of the serfs and you work. They’re [Chief Fox and his son Peter] one of the lords and they’re above you. It’s their heritage.” Then, to get the other side, reporters talked to the chief. If he suspected an uncomplimentary story was in the making, he’d often as not berate the writers, challenge their right to question his authority, and thereby reinforce every unflattering description of Fox they’d heard from his disgruntled staff. The paramedics and the press then became close, too close. Reporters and paramedics took to drinking and partying together, and Fox soon suspected it went even further.
The paramedics needed a convincing, unemotional argument to convince the county to move them from Fox’s jurisdiction in Solana Beach to Encinitas. Thus, the issue of response times was raised, and one highly touted report was issued showing that by moving the service north, more people could be reached more quickly. That issue remained unresolved for months, and in the summer of 1977, four of the original five paramedics quit: Bill Ardizonne (“Fox has made the department a most miserable environment to work in,” he wrote). Jeff Smith (“Our supervision . . . was unqualified, without respect and . . . often degrading and demoralizing*’). Bob May (“For the sake of my mental health”), and James Alexander, who suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of pressure on the job. The walkout left one survivor of the original group, Mike Warner, who would later try to interest the county grand jury in his experiences. Warner went to the Encinitas fire board for help, and they subsequently threatened to bolt from Fox’s ambulance district unless the moral problem was solved. Because of that, Ray Griset, who was on the ambulance advisory board, tried unsuccessfully to have Warner fired.
Griset had befriended Fox early on and since then had defended his friend whenever it was needed. Griset describes himself as a simple bean farmer, though he is far from simple. A personal friend of State Senator William Craven and Assemblyman Robert Frazee, and a man with influence among county supervisors, Griset holds a lot of the cards in San Dieguito politics. He is presently a member of the Rancho fire board, the Santa Fe Irrigation District board, the Rancho Santa Fe Association board, the Boys Club board, and the Red Cross board. He has served on the San Dieguito Planning Group and. for thirty-two years, was on the board of the Bean Growers of California. He grows lima beans, which his wife cooks layered with brown sugar and bacon. (“No bean made is good to eat straight,” he says.) While other farmers “crap shoot” with specialty crops, Griset has been taking lima beans to the warehouse for fifty consecutive years. He owns some 350 acres within the Rancho fire district, some of it in prime location for future development. And he has already profited from one classy suburb of the Ranch, a development called Fairbanks Ranch.
Despite his business and political acumen, Griset can get aggravated when he works with people who don’t see things his way. At meetings he can be abusive and occasionally disruptive. During the height of the ambulance board controversy, Chief Fox sat passively in the audience while Ray Griset hurled the barbs. He once tried to boot a Channel 8 camera crew from a meeting, and he could upbraid a reporter quite nicely from his seat on the podium. Griset knew of the cozy relations between the paramedics and the press, and when, in the midst of this challenge to Jim Fox, a story about a “phony fire station” appeared in the San Dieguito Extra, Griset became infuriated. “I can tell you this,” he said soon afterward, “before this thing is over, three or four people are going tomlose their jobs. From the Blade-Tribune right on down south.” The Coast Dispatch headlined the story, “Griset Says Reporters’ Heads Will Roll,” and not much later, some reporters had “Heads Will Roll” T-shirts made up.
When Village Park, a large development just east of Encinitas across Interstate 5, annexed into the Rancho Fire district rather than the closer Encinitas district (it was contiguous with both, but Rancho’s rates were lower), feelings between the two departments grew strained. Encinitas Firemen saw Fox as feathering his nest at their expense, and knowing as they did that the press would willingly go after Jim Fox, they decided to sling some mud. Some of them told Nancy Cleeland, then a reporter for the Extra, a story involving an insurance inspector who, while checking out Encinitas, accidentally opened a map which showed a fire station built in Village Park. The inspector, firemen said, thought it was an Encinitas station because it was so close, but then realized he was looking at a Rancho Fire district map. Village Park’s station, in fact, had yet to be built. Recalling Ponchot’s charges and suspecting malfeasance on the part of Fox and his department (the inclusion of a fire station on the Village Park map would have lowered the homeowners’ insurance rates), Cleeland wrote the story. She then reported what she knew to the district attorney’s office and they interviewed one another. “We have a file on [Fox] that rambles on and on,” District Attorney Edwin Miller said during the investigation. “We just can’t go anywhere with it.” The firemen’s story, however, was difficult to believe. Trying to fool an insurance inspector with an empty lot would be a nitwitted scheme at best. The D.A. found nothing, but reporters found that the battle lines between them and Fox were I now clearly drawn. Fox was convinced the press was intent on his demise.
The paramedics finally won a victory before the ambulance board; Fox’s interpretation of response times lost out to one that was more precisely substantiated. At that meeting some reporters wore their “Heads Will Roll” T-shirts under their coats. The paramedics and some press went out drinking afterward and there was a sense of mutual accomplishment. But that decision, though some two years in the making, was promptly overturned on August 1, 1978 by the county in a 4-0 vote in which North County supervisor Lee Taylor was pivotal. Taylor said he respected the wishes of James Fox, his friend for two decades, and the admittedly uninformed supervisors followed his lead. After the vote, Nancy Cleeland, who admits she had become personally involved in the battle, broke down and cried. Within nine months, enough paramedics had quit that communities in the area were forced to contract with a private service. Rancho and Solana Beach still have their own ambulances, and other departments have followed their example.
Though cast as the villain throughout the episode. Jim Fox was still immensely popular on the Ranch, and no small part of the admiration he received was due to his efFicient, effective department. Fox had perfected several ways of making and saving money. He operated his station
In 1976 the San Dieguito Citizen received and printed a letter written by Wilbur Ponchot in which he belatedly confessed to the people of Solana Beach that he had falsified fire reports under orders from Chief Fox. It was the first time anyone had suggested that the chief might not pass a white-glove inspection with as few firemen as was feasible and used government-subsidized workers and student firemen as much as possible. For a long time only two men rode an engine, though later he boosted each company to the more common three. His men worked sixty-six-hour weeks, ten hours above the norm. And Rancho benefited from its closeness to Solana Beach, which it relied on to send out men should the Ranch be understaffed due to illness or fire. (Solana Beach does the same in return, but as its station has a larger staff, it needs the backups much less often.) The station mechanics serviced the chief s personal car and thus saved the department the cost of a staff vehicle. And, of course, the mechanically inclined, led by young Peter Fox, did a lot more.
Starting with a collection of dilapidated rigs. Chief Fox has built a smart-looking arsenal of engines and tankers, each tailored to a specific purpose and unlike anything else in the United States. Their wheel bases are smaller, to accommodate Ranch driveways. Their pumps are mounted at the rear, rather than the side, a throwback to British engines and a design considered rather innovative here. (The man operating the pumps has a wider field of vision from the rear, and can more efficiently aid the fire fighting. The design is more complicated to engineer, but Peter and the other firemen took care of that.) They built tankers and off-road vehicles for brush fires, clumsy and liable to tip over on a hill, but able to reach areas no other rig could. They improved on their ambulances and sold the older models, and soon were under contract to build them for the county and the La Costa department, which Fox had taken under his wing for a few months. They ultimately built thirty or so vehicles, twelve of them ambulances. And, as Ray Griset boasts, “We haven’t spent a nickel on labor.” One fireman, formerly a colleague of the chiefs, muses, “What the hell business does Rancho Santa Fe have using its men to build ambulances for the county? What are they, an ambulance factory? That guy should have run a shoe factory during the industrial revolution.” To Fox, there is no questioning the propriety of his men working for the public good during spare hours. The day of pinochle games in the back room is long over, he cautions, and the watchword of the fire corps is service. Such were his feelings when he took on a fourth job, supervisor of the Rancho Santa Fe Security Patrol, which the Ranch Association formed in 1975.
The Association, as it is called, exists to enforce the Rancho Santa Fe covenant, a homeowners’ pact dictating architectural standards and yard maintenance. Its board of directors has the ultimate power, under the covenant, to confiscate land from owners who refuse to comply. It has never tested that prerogative, understandably, and for most of its history has dealt with matters closer to home, such as the condition of the golf course and the design of new homes. Today it is a politically conscious group fighting local battles over roads and land use. Lee Taylor, the former supervisor, presides; Ray Griset was recently elected to a second stint; and Dave Dewey, the other fire board member to serve twenty-four years with Griset, started his second term of office in 1977. The Association employs sixty people and represents the collective clout of the Ranch whenever it can — which is not to say that the golfers don’t fill the board room every now and again to discuss the greens. In 1975 the sheriff s department phased out the “country” deputy as a cost-cutting move and the Association board knew that from then on, the Ranch’s roads would not be patrolled very often, if at all. The Association had a few options, one of which was to form its own patrol. They asked Jim Fox for advice and he recommended that Rancho Santa Fe start up its own patrol service, which he consented to run from his station. For this the Association now pays the fire department $1000 a month from an annual patrol budget of $150.000. The figure covers rent, dispatching, maintenance on the vehicles, use of the phones, and Jim Fox’s services as supervisor. In good conscience, Fox could hardly devote a lot of time to a venture that serves only a portion of his jurisdiction, and he doesn’t. But the Ranch is pleased with the arrangement because, as Association controller Richard Kearns says, “We get a lot of bang for our buck.” The six-man patrol conducts 2000 security checks a month, makes arrests, and responds to burglar alarms. It’s a bring-your-own-gun affair, but the patrolmen are supplied with uniforms and badges and cars with amber light bars. They have a sergeant. Art Kaler, who is a former immigration officer. Fox is their supervisor and a security patrol board is above him. Ray Griset was an original member.
Another source of money for the fire department is donations from the appreciative Ranch residents — gifts as large as ambulances and as simple as a batch of cookies, but more often money, a check either to the department, the ambulance fund, or the firemen’s fund. Ranch residents remember Fox’s help. “I wasn’t accustomed to doing all these off-the-wall things,” says Ron Blum, a former fireman under Fox who now works for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “But Fox is one of the few people dedicated to his fire service enough that he’d do anything for the community. We’d go out and fix people’s garage doors. We’d go to the churches and string up their Christmas lights. You’d get these calls: ‘Hey, there’s a big black ugly bug trying to get in my house, what do 1 do?’ And you’d go over and make them feel better. Most people would never think of calling a fire department if their plumbing went out. I got tired of it; these people were misusing us in a way. But I could see the chief s point — the people were paying for a service. And they remembered us at Christmastime.” Christmas donations went to the firemen’s fund and turned up later in the form of cash bonuses to the men. For a while the alarm companies whose systems fed into the station also gave a nominal yearly contribution to that fund. Before long, however, they were required to contribute much more money in exchange for other privileges at the fire station.
Alarm companies like to have their systems feed directly into a fire station, but that practice can be burdensome to a small department. Fifty different companies might want to install equipment, and the manpower and space they require can be prohibitive. Some stations have kicked them all out; others tolerate them. Rancho Santa Fe, however, profits from the situation. At one time Westinghouse was the biggest fire and burglar alarm company on the Ranch, but no longer. Another company, Rancho Santa Fe Security Systems, run by Myron and Waltraud Mueller, boasts that it has seventy percent of the Ranch accounts, including some 135 that were once Westinghouse’s. Westinghouse, now called Westec, isn’t pleased with the way Mueller got their accounts and, to comment on it, gathered their vice president, president, and chairman of the board together in their Escondido headquarters. “Myron was our employee for many years and he exclusively serviced the Ranch,” said chairman Thomas Kenworthy. “He was a good worker, a hard worker. Soon he was working nights and days and handling all the calls in Rancho Santa Fe personally. He was the only face they saw' from Westec. We were astonished by his devotion to duty and we paid out a lot of money in overtime.” And then, in 1977, Mueller quit and started his own company. Former Westec customers were installing his equipment right and left. "It was so obvious, we were kicking ourselves after it happened,” Kenworthy says. At Westec, they claim the key to Mueller's takeover was Jim Fox.
Myron Mueller is a tall. thin, gentle man who still dresses like an alarm technician. His wife. Waltrand (known as Wally), has a thick German accent and is gregarious and talkative. Together they own and operate Rancho Santa Fe Security Systems, which has seventeen employees and around 600 accounts. 500 of them on the Ranch. Myron, who hasn't taken a vacation since 1975, works long hours and views an alarm company as a “service organization.” Wally says, ”I still believe the customer is king.” It’s not hard to see how the Muellers would get along with Fox. Myron started out by undercutting his old company’s prices by one-third, and he still boasts prices twenty to thirty percent lower than Westec, bargain rates he credits to his low overhead. In its first two years, Myron’s company operated out of the fire station, even listing it as the alarm company’s address in the phone book. And for as long as his accounts were limited to the Ranch, he didn’t need to hire a dispatcher because the station handled all incoming calls. According to employees of that era (1977-79), Myron was constantly in the station or out drumming up business. "Personal recommendations go a long way on the Ranch,” Myron says, and he had Jim Fox’s, implied or otherwise. Firemen admit recommending his system over competitors’ (for they thought it was truly the better deal) and answering his business calls when he was away. Slowly Mueller took over the Ranch accounts, until today he puts in ninety percent of new alarms in the Ranch. His competitors claim the Ranch's alarm policies are tailored to benefit Mueller and to discourage them.
Jim Barth, president of F.E. Barth Co. in Escondido, has let his Ranch accounts slide from a hundred to ten or twelve. He says he’s not eager to do business there because of service troubles. He was asked by Peter Fox to invest a couple of thousand dollars in the station’s new computer, but declined. "There’s no reason for me to make an investment in equipment like that when 1 already have it,” he says. Dan Pescar, owner of Sentinel Security in Escondido, tried to install a system at a single Ranch home. “I was discouraged very abruptly by Chief Fox and his son Peter Fox from putting my equipment in there,” he says. "In fact, I was initially told there wasn’t enough room.” Later he was told it would cost him a contribution ot several thousand dollars to get in. as well as a twenty-five-dollar monthly service fee. Pescar declined. “I considered it blackmail,” he says. At Westec the corporate officers grudgingly donated $3000 toward the new computer in order to “maintain the little level of cooperation we have,” according to vice president David Sage. Myron and Wally Mueller have also chipped in an impressive amount for the new computer, more than $8300. But unlike the others, theirs is not a donation. They claim outright ownership of half the computer, which is a cornerstone of their business.
Beginning July 1 of this year. Rancho Santa Fe will use its new computer to dispatch fire and security service on the Ranch itself, and for several other Fire departments nearby. Five in all. By using a central computer and single dispatcher. Rancho has paved the way toward combined services and lower costs. Final Financial agreements have not been reached, but it is said that Encinitas alone will save $30,000 a year because of the consolidation, minus its annual payment to the Rancho station. The new computer, the work of Peter Fox and David Thalimer, a computer technician, is sophisticated Alpha Micro equipment that will store and retrieve every piece of information a fire-fighter needs en route to a burning home or business, from personal medical problems to hazardous chemicals in storage. It w ill also serve as a back-up for the Muellers’ office computer, which services alarm accounts from La Jolla to La Costa. The Muellers have their ow n terminal into the computer and are proud to be participating in this commingling of the public and private sectors. “I think they run a ship-shape boat over at the fire station.” says Wally Mueller. “It is run like a military school. You see how neat and clean it is — just like a space center."
Jim Fox’s empire was at its most ship-shape, with no loose ends and everyone in line, when in September of 1979 he left for a few weeks’ vacation in Santa Barbara. Assistant Chief Peter Fox was left in charge of the fort, and Jim was looking forward to some days of relaxation by the sea. He’d hardly been in Santa Barbara for a few hours, though, when he answered the phone and was told of a huge fire that had swept through his fire district, destroying four homes and blackening more than 700 acres near the Ranch. Peter was going on television about then, explaining what had happened and why.
On the morning of September 15, 1979, a small, homemade pyrotechnic device similar to a bottle rocket was ignited in the grass along Black Mountain Road near Interstate 15. Firemen are fond of pointing out that every fire is the same size when it begins, but the tiny one that later was called the Bernardo, the Black Mountain, or the Circo Diegueno Fire would consume 7200 acres in its short life that day. Pushed by warm Santa Ana winds from the east and feeding on dry brush that had been growing for close to twenty years, the flames spread quickly in the 105-degree heat. The smoke was first sighted by the Booker Lookout Tower on Palomar Mountain and Bill Clayton, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry, arrived on the scene soon afterward. The flames had already spread to 300 acres and were heading west at an incredible clip. “It was the fastest-moving fire I’ve ever seen,” Clayton later recalled. “And I’ve been on literally thousands of fires.” Clayton called a San Diego battalion chief at a minute past noon and told him of the fire heading his way. They discussed strategy and it was clear that, while the fire was then heading through unpopulated grassland, it had the potential to burn through to Rancho Santa Fe or Del Mar and perhaps swing down into the La Jolla Canyon. It would probably go wherever it liked, even clear to the ocean.
At the Rancho Santa Fe fire station they saw the smoke billowing above Black Mountain and called the City of San Diego for information, which at that time was sketchy. The off-duty men, already on alert, were called to the station. Acting Chief Peter Fox jumped in his car at 12:03 and drove through the center of the Ranch, past the post office and the market and the little restaurants, toward Zumaquc Street, a road which runs atop a promontory pointing south and west from the Ranch and overlooking the San Dieguito River Valley. He got out of his car and stood beside it, staring east at the smoke rising from Black Mountain. The acting chief looked at the biggest fire he had ever seen. It was heading straight for him. He turned his car around and drove back to the station.
At age fourteen Peter Fox was something like England's Prince Charles, the heir apparent to a family empire. “The sun rises and sets over Jim Fox,” Ray Griset said, and Peter Fox grew up in the shadow. He lived at the fire department until he married in 1965, and he has never left its employ for longer than a few weeks’ vacation. Two-thirds of his life and all his adult years have been spent in America, yet he retains the accent and style of speech of his father. He learned most all he knows about running a fire service at his father’s side. Peter began as a part-time fireman, working regular shifts at age seventeen. At twenty-three he was made a part-time captain and worked one shift a week, later two, while employed full-time at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He became a full-time fireman in 1975 and cut his work at Scripps to half-time, continuing that arrangement even after becoming assistant chief in 1977. He now works there only occasionally, continuing his studies of -electrical conductance and chemical equilibrium of sea salts. He is meticulous in his lab work, and a glovebox he built to keep his chemicals free from atmospheric contamination was later used in UCSD experiments with moon rocks. Peter quickly picks up on things highly technical, whether computers, government budgets, or auto mechanics.
Growing up in his father’s fire station wasn’t always easy. Peter worked alongside men who were struggling up the ranks, taking a variety of tests and hoping for promotions that could ensure them the security to buy a home and raise a family. Peter, with no formal fire training, climbed the ranks while holding down another job, advancing without tests or competition. “He was my right-hand man since he was a boy,” Jim Fox recalls, and few ever doubted that Peter was intended to succeed his father as chief. Peter began giving orders to officers when he was still a part-timer, and like his father, could be cold and foul-tempered. He got a reputation as a hothead, likely to fly off the handle or unleash a cruel harangue. Men who accepted the same from the chief couldn't bear it from his young son. and Peter admits feeling an “undercurrent” that he couldn’t lay his hands on, that perhaps his colleagues resented him and his favored status. It was difficult for them to complain about Peter. A fireman needed to be remonstrated only once by the elder Fox for lack of respect toward Peter and he got the picture. And the arguments sometimes overheard between Peter and his dad were ones that regular men could never have initiated lest they be cast overboard. While the other firemen took tests, Peter’s proving ground was the “ambulance factory,” where he nearly always turned out fine work.
Following Jim Fox would be hard for any man, for the elder chief is a consummate politician of the joke-telling, gladhanding variety, a man who, when asked questions at a public meeting, has people turn around to hear his answer. “Chief Fox is at command in any room, whatever its size. It doesn’t matter if there are two people or two hundred,” one fireman recalls with awe. “He is able to hush crowds by the very way he sits down.” Peter Fox, on the other hand, appears uncomfortable and withdrawn, more at ease with facts and figures than with the unpredictable climate of politics. The average fireman under the two Foxes might admire the father not only for his personality and knowledge of the profession, but also because, as fireman Russ Simpson put it, “He’d drag hose and eat smoke right alongside of you.” Peter is admired for his administrative abilities, his talent at building fire rigs, his work with the computers. But it’s not easy to find a man who will talk about working alongside Peter at a fire, or who has seen the younger Fox actually battle the flames. “We were at several fires together,” says one fireman who worked for the Foxes for three years. “Did I ever see Peter fight a fire? No. Did I ever see Peter in a smoky environment? No. Did I ever see him on a ladder? No. Did I ever see him associated with high places? Negative.” It was the fire fighter’s own list, his own set of professional criteria. At fires, this officer charges, Peter “would stand outside and give directions. In wildland conditions he was always working on a piece of equipment that had failed.” Jim Gipner, who worked for more than two years as a fireman at the Ranch, was at only one major structure fire with Peter. “It was kind of a basket case, the fighting of the fire. There was no leadership; there was no guidance. When I was done, I was really ticked off.” Many firemen, on arrival at Rancho Santa Fe, heard the scuttlebutt that went around concerning Peter, but for the most part, they weren’t around him at a fire to judge the truth of it. It was well known that despite his emergency medical technician training, Peter didn’t care to go near blood and wouldn’t if he didn’t have to. One fireman who is close to the Foxes recalls that at accidents “I’ve seen him turn gray and stand back. He’d turn ashen. He doesn’t like the sight of blood.”
Steve Robins and Peter Fox never got along well together. Robins, who lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and works as a journeyman carpenter, says he left the Ranch after four years as a fireman because of religious conflicts. He is a devout Christian and a new schedule had him working every Sunday. When he asked for some Sundays off and was refused, he quit. The two men did work shifts together before discovering their mutual dislike, and Robins asks, “Was Peter afraid of fire? Yes. He told me so on several occasions. On one in particular, he told me he would never go into a burning building. He told that to me and Terry Stapp. He also told me he’d never fight a brush fire; he’d stay on the road and wait for it to come to him.” (Stapp, who is now a fireman for the City of San Diego after four and a half years on the Ranch, says he does not remember that conversation, but neither does he remember seeing Peter fight any fires. “Robins wouldn’t say something that wasn’t true,” Stapp says.) Robins continues, “Given time and a pencil and paper, he can figure out anything, but under pressure, he can’t perform as well as is expected of a man in his position. On one particular ambulance call, he wouldn’t go near the body because of the blood. I had him running for gauze and scissors and supplies because he wouldn’t go near the man. He admits he is afraid of the sight of blood.”
Ron Blum heard the rumors as soon as he arrived at Rancho as a fireman, but he never had an opportunity to judge Peter’s abilities. “I don't want to be the one to say it, but I don’t think Peter’s really the right man for the chiefs job,” Blum says from his home in Ontario. “He’d be a better assistant chief. When it comes to certain things about the department, he’s really suspect. I want a chief that has the respect of his men. Jim Fox has that. Obviously, Peter’s suspect. I say that being as a lot of people suspect him. They think he’s going to send them into an area that’s not safe and they’re all going to be killed. Jim Fox could send you into a burning building and you wouldn’t question it because he had your respect.”
Paramedic Bob May: “I was never there when Peter was personally engaged in fighting a fire. At ambulance calls, he’d usually be directing traffic. To the best of my recollection I cannot remember him so much as put a bandage on, though he’s helped us carry gurneys and that sort of thing. His instructions to his men were ofttimes confusing to me. I thought it was strange that the guys never did what he said, because they knew what to do anyway. They usually just took things on their own to get them done. About the only thing Peter would do would be monitor the radio. He just looked lost, let me put it that way. I think he felt uncomfortable being under that kind of pressure.” Another paramedic: “He'd be out directing traffic while the firemen fought the fire. At one fire, the radio went out in his pickup and he stayed in the cab and worked on the radio. Another time, at an accident involving two guys pinned in a Corvette. Peter was at the scene chewing out Robins for his attitude back at the station while the guys were still pinned inside.” A half dozen former firemen cannot recall Peter actively fighting a fire. “He’d stay outside and watch until things cooled down,” says one. “We had a small department and often there’d be only two or three men responding. When there’s only that many, you have to get inside there and do the job, but with Peter that wasn’t the case, I've seen him back off a lot.” These recollections, perhaps exaggerated by the men’s resentment, or toned down by their professional ethics, had to be rolling through many minds that day in September when the Bernardo fire swept westward.
By 12:45 the fire had consumed more than 2000 acres of grassland that included chaparral and mesquite. The humidity was a low eighteen percent and the overgrown hillsides ignited quickly. The Santa Ana winds fed it and it created winds of its own, up to sixty mph some said. The fire, sucking in air from the south and “making a run,” as it is called, would regularly flare up and head west faster than anyone could believe. One minute it was off in the distance; the next it was at your front door. Later, a forestry official would say it consumed “a football field a second,” and. snapping his fingers, induce listeners to think of imaginary football fields burning, a fire racing toward them. To the south, San Diego fire officials planned to flank the fire and keep it from Del Mar Heights and the Carmel Valley. An important consideration for the Rancho fire department was to keep these fast-moving flames from the Ranch proper, where they could easily leap from eucalyptus tree to eucalyptus tree and engulf the whole hill, a possibility that has always been a major concern. The other worry was the twenty-seven homes out on Circo Diegueno, a two-lane road south of the San Dieguito River that runs up through Morgan Hill and loops back into itself. The hill was named after Frank Morgan, famous in the role of the Wizard of Oz, who built a home there in 1942, a grand two-story white house which was dilapidated and abandoned until 1978, when a man named Ken Woodcox refurbished it and moved his family in. It was in Woodcox’s circular driveway atop Morgan Hill that Peter Fox set up a command post to assess the protection of Circo Diegueno homes.
The families on Circo Diegueno consider themselves pioneers of a sort. Though they live just two miles east of the Del Mar Racetrack, they are secluded by the winding roads and they rely on one another in times of adversity. On the day of the fire, many residents chose not to evacuate and instead stayed with their homes. The Zielinskis, residents for ten years, are a respected family, levelheaded and always ready to lend a hand. Tom Zielinski was in Escondido when he heard of the fire over his car radio. He raced back to his home and evacuated some neighbor’s horses, his pets, and some of his family, and began chopping down a tree next to his house, fearing that if it caught fire his home would, too. Midchop, Zielinski was surprised by two deputy sheriffs standing near him, who ordered him to evacuate. He refused. “You can use your gun if you want to,” he said, “but I’m chopping down this tree before I leave.” A deputy moved between him and the tree and told Tom he was under arrest. When he resisted, the second man moved behind him and put on a choke hold. As he struggled for air, Zielinski glanced up at the smoky skies and saw his son Mike, who was hosing the roof, walk over. Mike looked down and saw this scene, his father in a choke hold, and did the only sensible thing he could think of. He dove down on one deputy, knocking him to the ground, and helped free his father from the other. Then the two Zielinskis stood there, side by side, enraged, and the deputies retreated. Says Clark Baumgartner, who watched the scene from his home a hundred yards away, the incident became legend; it marked the stubborn determination of the residents who stayed on Circo Diegueno that afternoon.
Ken Woodcox watched the fire from his balcony, which faces Black Mountain and offers an impressive panorama. He was feeling more secure than most of his neighbors since Frank Morgan had built a concrete house with a tile roof, and Woodcox, a former insurance company fire inspector, judged his home an excellent fire risk. With the flames about fifteen minutes off, he looked down to his driveway and saw acting chief Peter Fox drive up. Woodcox went down to the car to offer Peter the use of his balcony as a vantage point. Woodcox says he then saw several fire engines, which had driven out to the eastern limits of a dirt road, fly past his home and down the hill, and he remembers asking Peter where they were going. “He wouldn’t even talk to me,” Woodcox remembers. “He was white, you know; you can see fright in a person’s face and he was frightened. He didn’t respond, he didn’t look at me. And then he turned his car around and went down the hill. Psychologically, he looked like a man who was completely coming apart.”
Off the hill and down the road a ways, Peter set up his second command post in a dirt field and was standing in the door of a fire truck trying to see the fire when Paul Danison drove up. Danison, then editor of the Del Mar News Press, had been at work in Del Mar when he saw the smoke. He jumped out of the car and raced out on Circo Diegueno until he encountered a roadblock manned by Peter and two firemen, one named Guy Harshbarger. “I don’t remember much of Peter Fox except that he was extremely tense, which was understandable,” Danison says. “I asked him a question about the fire and he told me to shut up and get out of there. He threatened to arrest me if I didn’t. Then Harshbarger took me aside and told me to get out of there for my own good. I went back about fifty yards and then the fire whipped through all of a sudden. It scared the crap out of me. I’ve never been so scared in my life.” After the flames passed through at about 1:30 p.m., Peter was still in the dirt lot, Danison says.
Meanwhile, Harold Crosby had finally gotten his rig moving and was heading toward the fire. Crosby, a Del Mar resident of some twenty years and the city’s current Chamber of Commerce president, was the volunteer captain for an old water tanker owned by the Del Mar Turf Club and, along with two other Del Mar crews, was responding to the fire. Crosby was late by some forty-five minutes because the Turf Club demanded a union driver show up before they’d let him take the rig out. He drove out Via de la Valle and, communicating by walkie-talkie, was assigned to Fairbanks Ranch, a future housing development near Rancho Santa Fe and the Whispering Palms golf course. At the time Fairbanks was a plot of graded earth with a few structures that the fire department would later bum in a training exercise. Assigned to the same area, Crosby recalls, were three other units: engines from Encinitas and Solana Beach and another whose affiliation he cannot remember. They were all awaiting instructions from Rancho.
“I guess I was confused or someone else was confused, but I didn’t do anything all day,” Crosby says. “We drove all over that Fairbanks Ranch and didn’t see anything but a burnt jackrabbit. There were three tankers and myself, a tanker, just running around up there. I don’t know what the hell for. We never got a specific assignment.” Crosby would never use his load of water on the fire, but instead topped off other tankers and, at day’s end, dumped it in the brush. It wasn’t a very proud day for the volunteer captain who still wonders, “What the hell were we up there for?”
Back on the hill, the Zielinskis determined that their house was safe and raced to help Clark Baumgartner, who was running from one end of his barn to the opposite end of the house, battling two small blazes. Ken Woodcox rushed over to his neighbor’s home and, with her garden hose, put out a few fires caused by burning brands landing on the roof. There wasn’t anything he could do to save a second house next door. Dennis Rockwell, a resident of fifteen years, ran to seven homes and put out fires at two of them. When he got back home, his own barn had started to burn and he put that out, tot). There were two fire trucks on the hill and they saved a couple of houses, but had to watch others burn. The smoke was so thick the firemen sometimes couldn’t see fifty yards away, and then there was the problem of water. The water tank on Morgan Hill serviced three hydrants, but unlike typical water tanks, it is not atop a hill, where it would detract from the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Instead, it’s in a hole and lower than the hydrants, which are fed by electrical pumps. With the power out, two of the hydrants could not work, leaving the single hydrant that relied on gravity to supply the department's tankers.
Clark Baumgartner couldn't get water, and neither could the two engine companies entrusted with a dozen or so homes. The residents continued to put out fires and check on one another without seeing any help, save two Rancho engines whose men, they say, worked valiantly but without reinforcement. The fire had continued west but then the wind shifted, sending it back into itself and cutting it off from fuel. With some help from the firemen, the massive conflagration choked to death. Del Mar Chief Bill Tripp, a portly man who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and chomps on unlit cigars, had waited in Del Mar in case the fire reached his city. When it died off, he sped out to the scene at Circo Diegueho and was appalled by the lack of coordination, with trucks going every which way and no uniform plan. He barked into his radio at Solana Captain Bill Roebuck and Rancho Chief Peter Fox, “Why are all the units running around? Is this a tour or what? All right you guys, let’s get this organized. Let’s get our acts together.” That night the residents of Circo Diegueho watched the television news and saw interviews with Peter Fox, interviews Peter says were unfairly edited and led him to mistrust the electronic media. They watched Peter say, “We saved twenty-three of twenty-seven homes,” and they thought. “Hey, wait a minute. We saved those homes, at least some of them; the fire department wasn’t really even here.” And they heard that thirteen engine companies had responded to their end of the fire and they recalled only two that stayed on the hill, where homes had been lost. All the time Dennis Rockwell spent running around, he never saw more than two trucks. From his roof, Tom Zielinski can see fourteen homes, and he saw just two trucks. They began to wonder: Where was the fire department?
Rita Judd, whose home Woodcox had saved and who would later ask for a grand jury investigation into the fire, says, “Any dummy knows that if there had been proper leadership of that department, they could have saved those homes. It was just so simple. All their excuses fly in the wind w hen my house was saved because of Ken Woodcox and one garden hose. Surely the fire department could have done that. It becomes very simplistic on one level: If there had been two Ken Woodcoxes, then [my neighbor’s] home could have been saved too. That’s why it’s so hard for me to talk about it, because the issue is so simple.”
The issues would never be that simple, however. As the events of Circo Diegueno unfolded, the animosity between the Foxes and neighboring departments, between the Foxes and their own men, and between the Foxes and the press would escalate dramatically.
The first criticism of Peter’s handling of the blaze came from Woodcox, whom the Coast Dispatch photographed outside his neighbor’s gutted home, looking angry and charging that the Fire was inefficiently directed. Without naming him, he pointed to Peter Fox. “It’s easy for some clown on the hill to criticize us,’’ Peter responded. “But I think he’s all wet. A fire is something you can’t direct. You station men and you take a stand. Under the circumstances — with the limited resources in San Dieguito — we did a good job. We saved twenty-three out of twenty-seven homes.’’ Woodcox says he soon got a call from a man at the fire station threatening a lawsuit if he kept talking about Peter, and thereafter he toned down his remarks, to the point of being quoted as asking, “How can I say this without getting sued?” (Later Woodcox would remark, “Since then I’ve heard you could say whatever you want about a public official. What I saw was a blatant display of cowardice by Peter Fox. He turned white and split in the face of fire.”) The anonymous call he received was one of many that would be made during the next weeks. At the firehouse they read the Coast Dispatch and Woodcox’s remarks and wondered about this “former fire inspector from Santa Barbara,” as he was titled. A quick call was made to the Santa Barbara Fire Department and no Ken Woodcox was reported as ever working there. When Cheryl Carlson, a reporter for the Del Mar News Press called. Guy Harshbarger told her to check out Woodcox because the guy was a phony. The reporter called Woodcox, found out the insurance companies he’d worked for, and called up his supervisors. They told her that Woodcox knew as much about brush fires as any man alive and that he’d once plotted the route of a hypothetical brush fire for insurance purposes, and had been proved accurate by a later fire. Woodcox won credibility; the next round of criticism came from fire chiefs and men at the fire.
“The number of people who wanted to speak out against him just amazed me,” says Danison, who was then about to leave the News Press to become editor of the Citizen. “When you've got four chiefs or captains all saying the same thing, you’ve got to go with it. I mean, what’s the Washington Post rule, two? When you’ve got four credible sources, you’ve got to go with it.’’ The four (Chief Ron McCarver of Encinitas, Chief William Kent of San Diego, Chief Bill Tripp of Del Mar, and an unidentified “high-ranking” officer from San Diego) all said the same thing: Peter Fox had not properly called for help or organized the scene — which was not to say it would have meant a damn thing in the face of what Chief Jim Dykes of the California Department of Forestry called the “ultimate fire.” “I don’t think that any fire department is adequate to deal with the ‘ultimate fire,’ and I don’t think they can afford to be,” he said. In addition to the chiefs, two Rancho Santa Fe firemen who requested anonymity spoke with Carlson. One said, “People were running around everywhere. There was no plan of attack.” And the other remarked that he had done nothing but drive around all day. Danison had talked confidentially to a number of people who “really wanted the opportunity to get this guy.” One of the “four high-ranking” officials confirmed what had till then been just a rumor — that Peter had sent a truck out to make sure the elder Fox’s home was secure (it was not close to the fire). In the last moments before deadline, while reporter Cheryl Carlson and another News Press writer were finishing work on their fire story, the newspaper got a flurry of phone calls, some trying to dissuade them from printing the article, others urging them on. “One call in particular which surprised me was from Guy Harshbarger,” Danison recalls. “I’d known this guy before. He’s about six-foot-five, a bully-type of guy, and he’d once told me what he’d do to reporters if they ever interfered with a fire and how nobody would ever find out about it. He called in the morning we were going to go with the story, trying to persuade me not to go with it, saying the timing wasn't right. He said I didn’t have the real story and we’d mess it up if we went with it now. He assured me that the chief wasn’t in the office and that his call was unauthorized, which made me feel immediately that it was being taped. I bet we talked for an hour, and that’s all he’d say. I couldn’t get any more. As soon as I hung up he called back for Cheryl.” The story that week contained no rebuttal from Peter Fox. The previous weekend James Fox had cut short his vacation and returned home to straighten things out. After he arrived, Peter left for a touring vacation in England.
The chief became the official spokesman of the department, where, under Rule 95, no one could talk to anyone outside the department without first getting the chief's permission, and the elder Fox allowed no one but himself to discuss the fire. Fox began conducting his own investigation, asking for written reports from all the men and specifically requesting that any complaints concerning Peter be brought directly to him. According to the chief, the reports indicated no lack of organization; not a single complaint about Peter’s performance ever materialized. (One fireman would later say that he and other men at the Rancho firehouse were afraid to broach the subject of Peter.) Thus, from the information given him. Chief Fox had no reason to suspect that his son’s command had been anything but splendid, and he immediately discounted comments from departments that had criticized Peter's use of mutual aid and his fire-fighting techniques. Reconstructing the sequence of radio and phone calls — who called whom when — turned out to be an impossible task; there were forty radio frequencies available and many were in use simultaneously. No station was equipped to record them all, much less to vouch for the time they were made. Nevertheless, Guy Harshbarger began assembling a tape of calls recorded at the Rancho station, but between the many conflicting recollections and the suspect nature of such a tape, nothing was proven to anyone’s satisfaction outside the station. San Diego Chief William Kent’s statements and those from another “unidentified” San Diego officer were later denounced as inaccurate by San Diego Chief Ben Holman. And the next weekend, firemen from four stations met at Encinitas Station No. 2 to discuss how they would manage their conflicting statements. Afterward, most firemen refused to talk to the press at all. Chief Fox. it appeared, was busy plugging leaks.
Fox says only one newspaper editor bothered to listen to Harshbarger’s tape, although the chief offered it to the unbelieving as if it were available at Tower Records. But to request the tape was to challenge Fox’s version of the fire — which implicated the San Diego Fire Department — and moreover, there were strict rules imposed on any listening. The editor who did hear the tape, for example, had to promise not to write about it.
Lisa Sanderson, a reporter for the San Diego Union, got to hear snippets of the tape, but “when it got right down to it, he wouldn’t play the whole tape, only parts.” she says. “And he seemed to think that this was the correct thing to do. I wanted information and he wouldn’t give it to me.” Sanderson began a seven-day siege of the station, during which she passed hours simply sitting on the front steps. “I tracked down anyone who walked in and out. Many of them were evasive. And I spent many hours locked outside private meetings in the fire station. After I had been hanging around so long that 1 looked like part of the furniture, some of the firemen opened up to me. They told me off-the-record that they hated his [Chief Fox’s] guts.’ ’ Sanderson was not the only member of the press lurking about, and the firemen grew weary of turning a comer and meeting a reporter who wanted whatever information they could give — opinions, names, dates, off- or on-the-record, can 1 call you at home? But the men couldn’t talk without directly defying Chief Fox, and they ultimately found the media attack unbearable. “Any time the press came around, run and hide, because here comes more slander,” is Ron Blum’s memory. “God, I hated the press. 1 hated them. Every time the press came around, you knew you were going to be in trouble again. The chief was never bothered by anything, but Peter, you could just see how he hated the press. God, he hated the press.”
After this hatefest was well established, along came Steve Hawk, a reporter for the San Dieguito Citizen. One of his first contacts was Ray Griset. “Every time I'd bring up the performance of the department during that fire, Griset would act as though I was the last in a parade of imbeciles,” Hawk recalls. “Instead of getting into specifics ... he went walking around the department, pointing out all the ambulances that Peter built — all the decorations and none of the facts. That just pissed me off.” Hawk got to talk to Chief Fox, and initially the interview went smoothly. Then Hawk, casually, made what he calls “an observation,” which actually was an attempt to sound out the chief. “I suggested to him that some people might wonder how a fire chief, who is a public servant, could afford to live in Rancho Santa Fe. He blew up, went indignant on me. He showed up the next morning in the Citizen office with an envelope full of the payment receipts and all the financial details of his house. He was thrusting these documents in my face: ‘Do you want to see this, do you want to see this?’ I didn’t expect anything like that.”
One never quite knew what to expect when interviewing the chief, but there were certain rites of initiation: a ceremonious presentation of a copy of “What’s Wrong with the Press” (an article which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor), and the denunciation of one’s predecessors and colleagues. What the paramedics described as “divide-and-conquer” tactics went for the press as well. Fox was quick to go off-the-record, quick to suggest that other reporters were inaccurate and were out “to get” him, and eager to win a newcomer’s trust. Nonetheless, the critical stories continued.
Fox’s investigation was unfinished on October 2, 1979, when the fire board held its monthly meeting. Jim Dykes and Bill Clayton (fire chiefs from the California Department of Forestry) were invited but no other fire chiefs were; in fact. Bill Tripp of Del Mar was requested not to attend. The meeting, usually held in the chief s office, was moved to a larger hall, which soon filled to capacity. Ray Griset chaired the gathering, and the forestry department explained its role and the progress of the fire. The fire, they said, was unstoppable; the best they could do was bottle it off and keep it from the Ranch proper and from Del Mar Heights. Two air drops were made, one on three homes in Circo Diegueno and one on the eucalyptus trees that led to the Ranch. Seven forestry trucks were sent to help in Circo Diegueno, but only two made it there because they spotted homes on fire en route. There was no way San Diego or the forestry department could have spared any other engines without committing a “gross tactical blunder.” Everyone was supposed to be working together, with three people in charge: Holman of San Diego, Dykes of Forestry, and Peter Fox of Rancho.
Then the Circo Diegueno residents asked about the Rancho Santa Fe department’s role in the fire, and the tension mounted with each exchange. With the exception of Peter Fox, who was still out of the country, anyone with the slightest interest in the affair was in attendance: firemen who were mad at the newspapers (and who were also mad a! Ken Woodcox, whom they were seeing for the first time); an unhappy Ray Griset. who kept trying to steer the meeting toward order as two tape recorders continued to run: a controlled hut defiant Chief Fox; former firemen and firemen's roommates who had a few things to say; angry residents w ho wanted questions answered; happy residents who wanted to commend the firemen: a load of media, including TV stations conducting interviews outside; and a few folks who were merely curious. It was a wonder this disparate crowd managed to assemble peacefully in one room; there was enough mistrust to spark an arms race. It didn't take long for tempers-to flare. Sharp exchanges ensued and soon it was unclear who had the floor. Then Harshbarger. who had been with Peter when the flames approached. decided it was his turn to speak. Captain Roebuck of Solana Beach had finished recalling his experiences, and ended his account with Peter going to the “rear of the ranks.” A voice from the audience wanted clarification: “He went to the rear?”
”What was your name, sir?” Harshbarger barked.
“Where were you when the fire was going on?” Harshbarger demanded.
”1 wasn't in the area,” Nortman replied.
"That’s what I thought. Would you stand a moment?"
"Can I ask a question?”
Harshbarger had taken charge. He then dramatically explained his day, using technical jargon and specific times to chronicle the department’s contacts and Peter Fox’s whereabouts. Harshbarger’s outburst ended with his final encounter with Peter in a dirt field before the flames hit: “Chief Fox turned to me, and I had my crew on a tanker and we were ready to go, and he said, 'I have to set up a command post. I’m heading back to the Morgan house.’ That’s where Mr. Woodcox lives, Morgan Hill. He said, ‘I’m going to try to set one there so we can get a staging area going. Good luck to you. Your executive officer is 2402.’ That is communicating, ladies and gentlemen, that is deploying equipment. That is what he said and from that point on I cannot vouch for what he did.” A momentary hush fell over the room as the image sank in of Peter giving a short salute to his aide and jumping into a car to meet the flames head on — the smoke-filled air. the fear, the final words: Good luck to you. Your executive officer is 2402. Who among those gathered at the meeting could breach that melodramatic moment by raising his hand (for they had returned to raising hands) but Ken Woodcox? He was interrupted by Harshbarger four times before a final phrasing of his question: “If any of you firemen in this station were to make any statements critical of Chief Fox’s son, would your job be in jeopardy or your position in jeopardy?”
“Of course not,” said Harshbarger.
“Good night!” groaned Ray Griset.
“Certainly not,” Chief Fox recalls saying.
Jim Taylor was ready to talk, and he’d been ready for some time. In his twelve years under Fox, during which he’d risen to an engineer’s position, this was the first time Rule 95 had been relaxed. After some prodding by friends and reporters, particularly Frank Saenz of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Taylor opened up. He said Peter was incompetent and would get someone hurt some day by his poor leadership. He described a lack of coordination at the fire scene and recounted that he went for long periods without receiving orders. He pointed to Peter as the root of the department’s problems. Two months later, Jim Fox fired him. “I had to fire him. of course, after what he’d said.” the chief explained. Taylor went to court to get his job back.
Fox never really meant to waive Rule 95 when he answered “certainly not" at that meeting. While under oath at a subsequent labor hearing regarding Taylor’s firing. Fox said he’d answered the question believing there would be no criticisms forthcoming. Had he known Taylor would speak. Fox said, not only would his answer have been different, he wouldn’t have called the meeting at all. Taylor is still fighting for his job, using the argument that Rule 95 is so broad as to be unconstitutional. Chief Fox says he interprets Rule 95 as permitting him to discipline a man for complaining about the department to anyone, even a fireman talking to his wife. The rule is still invoked around the station and no one talks to the press without first asking Fox, even men who haven’t worked at Rancho Santa Fe for years.
Not long after the October 2 meeting, the Rancho fire board cleared the department of any wrongdoing and released a capsulized version of Harshbarger’s tapes. The report gives no indication of where Peter was most of the time, or how he deployed his men. Circo Diegueno resident Rita Judd wrote to the county grand jury and asked for an investigation. The grand jury looked into the matter and decided to conduct a full investigation. Five months later it released its report, which supported the contentions of the chiefs on the scene: Rancho hadn’t followed mutual aid plans, leaving nearby departments without information needed to make judgments and causing some lack of coordination. It recommended more hydrants, less brush, back-up power supplies, and better coordination, but made it clear that even these improvements might not have saved any homes. Chief Fox now says that report “completely exonerated” his son.
Peter Fox has never talked about what happened at Circo Diegueno. After succeeding his father as chief of both Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach in February, he declared a moratorium on interviews with the press. “I made a vow when 1 took the job that I wasn't going to give interviews, and I’m not going to break it,” he said recently. “I think it's only fair that I get three months to get my feet on the ground. I think I should get a shot at the job before I give an interview. I'm not running for president. I've not been out campaigning for the job for two years.” Also, he added. ”1 will not discuss the Bernardo fire, ever. ... I'm not going to respond to statements that I'm afraid of fire.”
His father, though, never refuses an opportunity to defend his departments, though he says he’s now retired and is sick of interviews. Jim Fox was forced to retire because of his age, but he’s still active in the department as a consultant and admits that he retired against his will. He's had a couple of send-offs, one at the Ranch's Garden Club which drew more than 400. and a retirement dinner at a local country club attended by a hundred. At the latter he was praised for his years of service, his accomplishments, low tax rates and favorable insurance grade. One fire chief publicly apologized for the mistrust that had surrounded Fox during his twenty-four years at the helm. “So what are his motives? Is he building an empire?” Chief Stan Mourning of San Marcos asked rhetorically. “No, Jim is bringing us an idea from England, which is unity of purpose.” Speaking to the assembled chiefs. Mourning urged them to “take a page from Jim’s book. I, as well as so many Fire chiefs in this room, was guilty as hell. I didn’t listen to what he was saying. And ladies and gentlemen, 1 apologize.” Those are the memories Fox says he'd like to carry with him, but he is still preoccupied with defending his department against various threats, including recurring criticism of his son. It all comes, the chief says, from folks with axes to grind. “They all left with a feeling of resentment, of bitterness, and it’s reasonable to assume these people would not say anything complimentary,” Fox says. “Those are things that I just think are deplorable, and to get into that by talking to these kinds of people — God, I could go anywhere and get people to say things about anybody. I mean, I want some facts, some substantiation. He [Peter] was in the thick of it at Circo Diegueno, absolutely. I’m very sad. I get very aggravated because you [the press] don’t keep it on a proper, intelligent level. You’re succumbing to this kind of rubbish that I’ve been objecting to over the years. . . . You get a guy who can’t write, can barely write his own name, criticizing Peter. I think it’s deplorable. Rest assured that those people came to us with nothing. It’d have been very hard for them to get where they are if it hadn't been, I think, for me.” Criticism from the press, however, is not the only threat demanding attention. The Fox empire is in danger of being broken up by other forces outside the Ranch.
Both Solana Beach and the cluster of towns to the north are inching toward incorporation votes, and should they become cities. Fox’s sprawling jurisdiction could be severely restricted. The proposed boundaries of the northern city — for the time being, referred to as San Dicguito — includes Village Park and it’s likely that that area would be transferred to Encinitas’s fire district to keep the boundaries uniform. Fox and his fire board members are opposing San Dieguito incorporation and are wooing Village Park voters in hopes of swinging the election. If Solana Beach incorporates as a city, its new city council would then run the fire department and perhaps end the tradition of collaboration between it and Rancho Santa Fe, as well as the shared-chief program. Fox is currently trying to unite the two districts under one fire board before a city council can take office.
The transition of power from father to son will likely drag on until the elder Fox at last calls it quits. “As you can see. I’m not retired yet,” James Fox said recently. He still calls the department his, Peter is “my chief,” and he still claims control over his firemen’s statements. At age sixty-five the chief is not as spry as he once was. His gait is sometimes slow and stiff, and former employees often inquire as to how the chief is looking before asking any other question. One recalls the chief of two years ago: “He never walked anywhere; he ran. He was the most hyper man I ever knew.” But before bowing out. Fox has a dream he'd like to see realized: the consolidation of the many small departments near the Ranch into one centralized, cost-efficient organization under one board of directors and one chief. “If I can offer the one experience I learned during World War II, it is greater degree of consolidation,” he said. “That's something we're going to have to accept in this world of the decreasing tax dollar. It brings out a greater degree of efficiency in terms of standardization, training, pay, degree of service. . . . It's a good service, the American fire service. But we have to stop being so parochial. Nobody seems to be taking the lead on this, except my present chief now and myself. We’ll spearhead it.”