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Rocklin Fire Department looks back on busy 2010

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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The Rocklin Fire Department has weathered a busy 2010 despite budget cuts, pay cuts and the ever-threatening state budget crisis.
“These are difficult times, but the fire department will maintain its strong character,” Rocklin Fire Chief Bill Mikesell said. “I am very proud of the outstanding service that the employees of the Rocklin Fire Department provide to this region.”
Firefighters admit they’ve seen less wildland fires in 2010, but nearly double the amount of house fires. And then there was that mall fire.
Galleria Fire
Considered a career event for many of the Rocklin firefighters, the Galleria Fire became a model of on-scene communication between multiple agencies, but most of the media attention centered on the delayed fire attack due to concerns over the arson suspect Alexander Piggee’s alleged explosive device, which was threatening firefighters.
“We were like, ‘OK, it’s happening. It’s real,’” Fire Capt. Shawn Watkins said. “We wanted to get in and take care of business and there was a lot of, ‘Put on the brakes.’”
The Oct. 21 fire brought together more than 160 firefighters from 19 agencies and rewrote the rules for complex disaster drills, according to fire officials.
Summit Fire
Considered one of the most dangerous wildfires to hit Rocklin in more than a decade, the Clover Valley-area fire threatened homes and consumed 55 acres June 14, according to Rocklin Fire Department Battalion Chief John Shelton.
“That was the most significant wildfire in Placer County and it just so happened to be in Rocklin this year,” Shelton said.
Early on, homeowners worried about their homes and complained there were not enough firefighters to stop the blaze, but they got the job done without any structures lost.
“Because the fast-acting crews did such a great job of getting a handle on that fire, that threat was eliminated very quickly,” said Rocklin Fire Battalion Chief Tim Palmer.
The three-alarm blaze assembled more than 70 firefighters including inmate hand crews from Cal Fire, which worked for days to contain remaining embers.
Slate Court
With nearly double the number of structure fires to extinguish this year, a fire on Slate Court involved three homes on Aug. 18, according to Palmer. Palmer said it was a challenge because Rocklin Fire crews that covered the area were on a wildfire at the time of the call, so mutual aid from surrounding cities had to help out.
“Once we found out the grass fire wasn’t significant, we went back to Slate Court and helped fight that fire,” Palmer said.
The fire started from discarded smoking materials on the side of the house and quickly spread to two other houses causing $325,000 in damage, Palmer said. Fire crews were able to save $1.1 million in property, according to their estimates. 
4th Street Alley
Fire crews used their hazardous material training to clean-up one of the largest residential dumps of dangerous chemicals in the city early last year in the alley near 4th Street in downtown.
“Somebody just drove in, unloaded their chemicals and drove away,” Palmer said.
The $100,000 state funded clean-up included chemicals like pesticides, paint thinners and cleaning products in leaking containers.
“Whenever you mix chemicals, you never know what you’re going to get and it could be a deadly combination,” Palmer said.
Budget woes
Rocklin city workers, along with all firefighters, took 5 percent salary concessions this year to help balance the city budget. The fire department has laid off support staff, reduced funds used for overtime and cut fire prevention programs like the fire starter program that educates children who play with fire.
“We have to do the best we can with what we have,” Shelton said.
The city got a lot of attention last year when they deployed hungry goats in weed-rich open spaces as fire prevention. The move saved money that would have been used for bulldozers and costly mowing.
Both firefighter injuries and overtime have been kept to a minimum. They also report a significant statistic – no loss of life by fire in the city last year.
“I got into this profession to give back to the community,” Shelton said. “I can do things as a training chief to help my firefighters stay safe and everyone goes home. It is a rewarding profession.”
Shelton and Palmer both followed relatives into industry and said they love their jobs. Shelton’s grandfather started a fire service in Nevada County and Palmer followed his brother into the service more than three decades ago. They both said the department will make it through another funding flap this year.
“We rely on training, mutual aid and luck,” Palmer said. “We’re all doing our part in these economic times. We’re lucky to have jobs.”