It would be difficult to imagine a more challenging first day of work than the one faced by Fire Chief William McDonald, the new head of the Alameda County Fire Department (ACFD).
McDonald, who succeeded recently retired Fire Chief David Rocha, was scheduled to take command of the department Aug. 17, the day after lightning storms sparked hundreds of fires across the state. One of those fires, the SCU Lightning Complex, started burning in Alameda County and four other nearby counties. It prompted evacuation orders and warnings as it grew to the third largest wildfire in California history at nearly 400,000 acres.
“It was very busy and very stressful,” McDonald said. “But it was a pretty amazing time to see the response of Alameda County firefighters, as well as our partners in mutual aid and other fire departments throughout the county — just an amazing response, from our Cal Fire partners as well.”
While McDonald’s first day of work was officially Aug. 17, he and his staff got to work early on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 16 as the first reports of fire in the county started to accumulate. At that point, McDonald had already started meeting with members of the department, so he had begun to develop an understanding of their experience and capabilities.
Despite the challenges, the incident gave him the opportunity to see the great depth of knowledge of his team. In addition, it gave him a first-hand look at the needs and threats of residents of the county.
“We are lucky to have Chief McDonald serve as our new Alameda County Fire Chief,” Alameda County District 1 Supervisor Scott Haggerty said. “Although we will certainly miss Chief Rocha, our new chief has the experience, professional decorum and leadership skills to continue to advance our department forward in what will be some very difficult fiscal times. Chief McDonald took no time getting acclimated to the county department, as on his first day as the county fire chief he was welcomed with numerous fires that started over that weekend due to the uncommon lightning strikes that occurred in our county. If that is a true reflection of his ability to step in, lead and get things done in a time of such great adversity, then our fire department will be in great hands under his administration.”
A California native, McDonald grew up in Fresno and attended California State University, Fresno. He joined the Fresno Fire Department in 1978 and rose through the ranks there, reaching deputy chief before taking on the role of fire chief in Foster City in 1993. Most recently McDonald served as the chief of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue.
“There’s an attraction to being able to live and work in Alameda County,” McDonald explained. “When the opportunity to come and be a part of the organization became available, it was something I was very excited about and wanted to be a part of.”
ACFD provides contract fire and rescue services to several cities. McDonald said that solidifying those relationships and finalizing outstanding contracts will be a primary focus of his administration. Other priorities include ensuring the ACFD provides leadership in prehospital-care service and developing ACFD’s regional influence and leadership.
Considering his recent experience with the SCU Lightning Complex, McDonald believes there are lessons to be learned.
“I expect that we will see more of those in the future,” he said. “I think we need continued vegetation management and preventative actions to be able to address those. The number of resources that we had to address the threats of this fire was very limited. (We need) to understand how, in future events, we’re going to address what additional resources will be necessary; how we can share those resources throughout the state and throughout the region; and how we develop additional resources.”
With family and friends close by, McDonald and his wife are happy to be back in the Bay Area.
“It’s just wonderful to be here,” he said.