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Rocklin firefighters reflect on Galleria fire

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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As stores at the Galleria of Roseville slowly reopen after the devastating fire that scarred the largest mall in the Northern California, Rocklin firefighters reflect on the career event. The fire, while devastating for the community’s gathering place, was remarkable to those who got into the firefight. “It was great to be involved in the magnitude of this incident,” Rocklin firefighter Jerry Dolley said. “It’s not every day you can say you were on the Roseville Mall Fire.” Dolley spent nearly two hours atop a 75-foot ladder truck directing a nozzle spraying, at times, 1,000 gallons of water into the gaping hole created when fire started in the Game Stop Oct 21. Alexander Piggee is accused of creating the blaze which reportedly caused $55 million in damage to the recently remodeled shopping mecca. Besides having to deal with the complexity of a fire in a million square foot building, 31 engine companies and 9 ladder trucks rushed in from 19 fire agencies bringing with them nearly 163 firefighters and a lot of logistic concerns. Rocklin Battalion Chief Kurt Snyder became the incident commander’s right-hand man juggling five different radio channels, a helicopter and both cell phones ringing at the same time. “You have to be able to prioritize,” Snyder said. Rocklin Fire Capt. Shawn Watkins and his crew were given the assignment called the Rapid Intervention Crew. “If any of the interior crews have a problem it’s our job to go in and get them out,” Watkins said. The incident had to be carefully orchestrated as it wasn’t only a structure fire but a potential bomb threat to the firefighters as well. Law enforcement led by Swat teams, FBI and ATF agents held the firefighters at bay until the alleged bomb left by the suspect was neutralized. “We wanted to get in and take care of business and there was a lot of, ‘put on the brakes,’” Watkins said. Rocklin Battalion Chief Kurt Snyder said he resents the criticism in published reports that they took too long to get into the fire. “They don’t know, they weren’t there,” Snyder said. “We put our life on the line for other people’s lives in a calculated way.” Whether they could have saved the evacuated mall millions in damages by considering risky behavior is out of the question, Snyder said. “A store is not worth your life,” Snyder said. Just after dusk, Rocklin fire crews got their first glimpse of the damage inside and it became a huge reality check. “We were like OK, it’s happening. It’s real,” Watkins said. “Then we switched gears to the economic impact and how many people were out of a job. The fact that one person could have caused this – blew us all away.” Snyder said he was wading through ankle-deep water on the first floor as the water from the ladder trucks poured in from the second floor like a waterfall. “With all the water coming down, it sounded like we were in a jungle,” Snyder said. “Sights and sounds you don’t normally experience in a mall.” Watkins remembers how all the cookies at Mrs. Field’s near the fire location were perfectly in place, the LED sign was working on the Slurpee machine, coffee on the counter was ready to go but all of it blanketed with a layer of dark soot. “It was weird,” Watkins said. “You expect to go into the mall and have the sun shining through it, music playing and people running around giggling but there was none of it. It looked like a bomb went off.” Snyder explains how he was struck by the apocalyptic scene. “It’s a bizarre feeling to just walk in and it’s like time stopped,” Snyder said. Snyder recalls the fire location reminded him of the U.S.S. Cole after the terrorist attack. “It was a normal-looking mall and then there was a gaping hole,” Snyder said. The hole was on the second floor of the mall, the size of nearly four businesses and the sky was visible as the roof had collapsed. Snyder said the story that was lost in the Galleria Fire shows how well the firefighting effort was executed with only one injury – a back strain. Snyder credits Roseville Battalion Chief Dean Grundy for setting the tone at the incident. “Everyone was biting at the bit to get in there and he said, ‘pull the reins back. We’re not getting anyone hurt or killed,’” Snyder said. Snyder said his calming nature was good leadership. “People go out with a frame of mind where they can think logically and come up with good decision-making,” Snyder said. The Incident Command Structure, the procedures for handling a large incident, wildfire or terrorist attack worked nearly flawlessly, Snyder said. “The fire is unfortunate but the fire paid dividends within the fire community,” Snyder said. “Building a relationship, the cooperation and executing a plan and seeing our success. All of our spirits are a little higher and it makes you want to move forward even more.” With the State Emergency Declaration, Rocklin’s 10-hour operation at the fire will be paid for by the state.