The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District recently bestowed its highest honor, the Bell of Distinction, on former Chief Erwin Willis for his accomplished career and service to the district. Willis was chief of the district for 12 years, from 1993 to 2005.
“Erwin Willis will always be known as an innovator, a visionary and a leader,” said Jim Ashcraft, president of the RSF Fire Protection District board at a June 19 ceremony attended by fellow firefighters and friends. “He had drive and ambition for the district to be the best it could be and that has carried on ever since he left.”
A plaque will bear Willis’ name will on the historic bell at the fire district’s offices in Cielo Village. Only two others have received the district honor: Jack Mullins, a board member from 1984 to 2003 and Chief James Fox, who was chief from 1957 to 1981.
The bell, originally from a Louisiana plantation, was donated by The Margaret Munsch Trust in 2000. Munsch, a longtime community member, supported many different charities including the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, Village Community Church and Scripps Health Foundation.
Willis started his career as a volunteer firefighter at the Morro Bay Fire Department in 1973 and became a full-time paid firefighter in San Luis Obispo in 1974. He went up through the ranks from firefighter to engineer, then captain, battalion chief and fire marshal.
He applied for Rancho Santa Fe’s open chief position in 1993 when his wife Noelle Norton received a job offer at University of San Diego as a political science professor. After he was lucky enough to be selected as chief, they moved to Solana Beach where they still reside. Norton is now the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at USD.
Ashcraft said honoring Willis was special for him, as Willis was chief when he was first elected to the board.
“Erwin was instrumental in many of the processes and procedures that are currently in place. He had tremendous vision for strong fire prevention codes and assisted in drafting codes that saved hundreds if not thousands of homes during the Witch Creek Fire in 2007 and the Bernardo Fire of 2014,” said Ashcraft. “He was a leader in the development of six shelter-in-place communities within the district and he also had vision to use computer technology as a tool to improve communications.”
Ashcraft said Willis also had ideas about good management infrastructure and brought the first strategic plan to the district. Anticipating the rapid growth of the district, he helped with the construction and improvement all of the fire stations in the district—he negotiated contracts for fire protection services for 4S Ranch, Cielo, Crosby and The Lakes which covered all district costs for the construction of Station 2 in 4S and Station 4 Cielo, “unheard of at the time,” Ashcraft said.
As Willis was a strong advocate for fire prevention, he wrote and facilitated shelter-in-place and wildland fire codes that have since been adopted by many fire departments.
“The idea of shelter-in-place, to adopt new codes to build new homes so when there is a wildfire people go into their house instead of evacuating…most boards would have told me I was crazy and it wouldn’t have happened,” Willis said. “All of these things only happened because the board of directors supported them, endorsed them and funded them.”
Throughout his career, Willis was honored as Fire Prevention Officer of the Year in 2003 by the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, Firefighter of the Year in 2005 by RSF Fire District employees and Volunteer of the Year in 2008 by Burn Institute, where he also served as a director.
“He is very personally humble for everything that happened in the district. He’ll be the first to tell you it was because he had a tremendous staff, wonderful firefighters and good boards,” Ashcraft said. “I think all that is true, but we had Erwin Willis.”