Ahhh, 2017. What a year.
For Curry Countians, the most memorable incident of 2017 will likely be the Chetco Bar Fire — the damage done, the recovery, the repercussions and hoped-for changes to ensue.
That fire was started by a lightning strike in mid-June and slowly grew until a commercial airline pilot spotted it burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in July. The U.S. Forest Service sent hotshots in to evaluate its growth, the fuel through which it was burning, the weather and terrain, and had to let it go. Too steep. Too dangerous. They were not going to put any lives on the line — yet.
Throughout August, the fire simmered along. It wasn’t threatening any homes. It was barely making the news.
Any news the Chetco Bar Fire did make was blown off the page and the airwaves by massive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, incredible fires in Eastern Oregon and in the Columbia Gorge, Montana. More than 8.8 million acres would burn by summer’s end nationwide.
But the Chetco Bar Fire was just getting started.
Over the weekend of Sept. 19, the Chetco Effect roared in, taking fire officials by surprise with the strength of its winds. The hot winds fed the fire, helping it grow from some 1,600 acres to 22,000 acres. Hundreds, then thousands, of residents evacuated as it headed north, south and west, burning through dry underbrush in the scars of the Biscuit and Silver fires.
Thousands of firefighters from across the country rotated through Curry. Volunteers from here and other communities manned shelters and held food drives and concerts to help those affected. The fairgrounds in Gold Beach became home for farm animals also evacuated.
The summer tourism season was pronounced virtually dead.
In the end, six homes, 20 outbuildings and 191,125 acres were burned to the ground. The conflagration cost about $77 million.
Repercussions have yet to play out. Winter rains have yet to begin in earnest, and biologists say when they do, the water will wash sediment and chemicals from the slurry dropped on the land down the Chetco River and affect Brookings’ and Harbor’s municipal water systems for years to come.
Landslides will likely occur where the ground was incinerated. Although some plants were seen growing within weeks of the fire’s containment, much of the forest will take years to regenerate in soil now void of minerals.
Money is being allocated for studies of the river and siltation, the economy and fire prevention.
The blame game has been suppressed — so far. Many question decisions made by the Forest Service, particularly the so-called “let it burn” policy at the national level. Others still don’t buy the explanation that it was too dangerous to send firefighters in at the beginning to extinguish the fire when it was small.
Curry County commissioners started their year with two new faces on the board: Sue Gold and Court Boice — and the same old problems on the agenda: the budget and a lack of revenue.
Like boards before them, they had to tighten their fiscal belts even more. Department officials were told to cut a collective $1.5 million — everything from paper to erasers — from their budgets.
In the end, only $200,000 was taken from the Road Capital Improvement Reserve Funds, which total about $36 million, and another $246,000 from 2016’s carryover reserve, to help fund the sheriff’s patrol.
County commissioners got very little accomplished this year. It approved board rules of decorum, procedures for how to get items on an agenda, rules relating to requests for documents and travel policies. After months of denial, they agreed to give the sheriff a raise, hired a new accountant and an interim county administrator. The search is still on for a permanent manager.
Boice continues his fight to consider a new source of revenue for the county in the form of a restaurant tax, and his idea of introducing wild horses into the backcountry as a method of fire prevention.
The year was marked by marches on the national and local fronts. Hundreds took to the streets in Curry County wearing pink hats to protest sexism and the new president of the U.S. Others fought on behalf of science, climate change and the environment. Students took time out of their school days to protest cuts at the state level.
Winter storms battered the coast, throwing driftwood and rocks up onto Beachfront RV Park — and proving to be the final straw for the Port of Brookings Harbor’s dock pilings, which worked their way loose. Officials later learned they had been put 4 feet into the ground, instead of the required 20 feet.
Federal requests for emergency funding for the winter storm damage were later denied.
Weak fall salmon returns in January portend the cancellation of the season and, ultimately, the area’s hottest draw of the summer, the Slam’n Salmon Fishing Derby.
But the crab strike finally ended, with fishermen who wanted $3 a pound and processors that wanted $2.75 a pound, settling at $2.875.
The port, under a new board and Manager Gary Dehlinger, slowly got its finances in order, but throughout the year was beset with problems related to failing docks, the closure of the fuel dock this week — right before crab season was set to begin — dredging that causes banks to erode, the boardwalk slipping and other issues.
It also got out of the event-promotion business, leaving hosts scrambling to find new venues. In the end, most of them — the pirate and kite festival among them — stayed.
The port held an auction to clean up the area, and unloaded boats, vehicles, machinery and thousands of other items. Among them was the Tally Ho, a 108-year-old vessel built by Albert Strange, a noted shipbuilder. Its owners, The Albert Strange Association, fretted about its potential demise until auctioneers struck the gavel and passed it to a man who hauled it to Washington for restoration.
The city of Brookings made an overture to the county to see if the board was interested in handing over management of the airport in town to the city; by year’s end, it appeared as if that might come to fruition.
In Brookings, the first phase of a two-year project began on Railroad Street to replace water and sewer pipes then widen the road to include a lane of traffic in either direction, a center turn lane, sidewalks and bike-friendly access. The work will resume after this winter and is expected to be complete later in 2018.
It wasn’t without its disruption, however, as store owners along the street complained about a lack of business and difficulty in getting around.
The Brookings-Harbor Shopping Center was sold, forcing the Brookings-Harbor Community Theater out; that group continues to look for a new venue. Barron’s Home Furnishings left at the end of 2017 to take over the space formerly occupied by Azalea Lanes in Brookings. With the exception of the anchor spot, most of the shop spaces remain occupied.
The Brookings-Harbor Community Helpers Food Bank van was returned from Portland, where it had been held for four months after its theft during a burglary.
The city created a turmoil after cutting some 60 trees on Lundeen Lane on the east edge of Azalea Park, learning that some were infected with conks. It then conducted studies, and held public forums and meetings to cut down another 75 or so in the park, which brought the community out of the woodwork, forcing the city to halt its plans.
The city decided to cut about 35 trees near the bandshell.
The Veteran’s Administration clinic on Railroad Street opened, offering twice the space in which to see vets. Doctors were slated to arrive a few weeks later.
The annual Fourth of July fireworks were narrowly saved but for those hoping to view them from town, were fogged out.
The Chetco Inn, formerly a fancy hotel and most recently an assisted living facility, is now a sort of communal apartment complex.
The county, as a whole, continued to battle with issues of homelessness, affordable housing and health care availability, with action in the national arena bringing little more than uncertainty to most.
Curry Health Network announced it would open — then delayed, then announced — the opening of the new Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach. The $30 million facility opened to much fanfare in May, with hundreds of residents touring the facility before patients were transferred from the old facility.
PenAir, the airline flying out of Crescent City, announced it was ceasing operations, with its last flight out 10 days before Christmas. Three companies bid to take its place; Contour Airlines emerged the victor. Contour won’t be in the air, however, until spring, and Del Norte County officials are grappling with how to address PenAir’s contract, which requires them to remain in service until a new airline comes along.
The state put limits on how many prescription painkillers can be doled out to patients in light of an opioid addiction crisis sweeping the country. That didn’t set well with many residents in Curry County, which has the oldest population and the largest percentage of veterans in Oregon. Many had their prescriptions halved by pharmacists who were trying to ensure all those with prescriptions got at least some of their medications.
Meanwhile, marijuana sales grew. There are about nine shops in operation in Curry County today. Another is temporarily closed, two have folded, and two others are in the process of approval. Many expressed interest in watching how they will be affected when California’s recreational marijuana becomes legal Jan. 1.
Josephine County officials warned Curry County commissioners about the problems they are having with the Mexican drug cartels and massive marijuana operations in their county.
A few noted residents died, as well, including Marlyn Schafer, a former county commissioner, and Gary Crabtree, a former port director — both beloved and controversial in their own rights. Veva Stansell, a Pistol River pioneer and discoverer of a tiny flower named after her, dies.
Some things experienced a surge in popularity including beekeeping, Pokemon Go, “pussy hats,” and tiny houses. The solar eclipse attracted thousands from across the country to Central Oregon.
A would-be birthday party was held for Elmo Williams on April 30, with celebrations in Azalea Park. Williams, who died in 2015, would have been 104 in 2017. The Hollywood producer was instrumental in the construction of the iconic Capella by the Sea in the park.
Colorful kites danced in the sky as part of the annual international invitational held in Harbor, pirates “argh’ed” their way through the port. The Azalea Festival attracted the thousands it does every year. Concerts in Azalea Park played on — a few Sundays even in dense, orange smoke from the Chetco Bar Fire — and Cape Blanco Airport hosted a mass casualty training to prepare local to national agencies for a Cascadia earthquake and tsunami.
Oregonians celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beach Bill that coincided with an increase, to a dime, for bottle returns.
It’s a lot, in 12 months. And there’s more to come.