Top stories of 2015: Lowell Fire leads the list of events, issues topping local news scene |

Top stories of 2015: Lowell Fire leads the list of events, issues topping local news scene

Cal Fire patrols the Lowell Fire from a vantage point and communicates information to fire crews on July 25, the day the fire began.
Laura Mahaffy/ | The Union

Although there were many events, topics and issues contending for consideration as western Nevada County’s top news story in 2015, few would likely argue that there was any other event that captured the community’s attention more than the Lowell Fire.

Folks out enjoying a warm, sunny afternoon and otherwise blue sky above Grass Valley and Nevada City on July 25 couldn’t have missed the large plume of smoke rising atop the forested horizon to the east in Placer County.

First report of the fire came at 2:37 p.m. that day and by the time it reached full containment, the blaze had consumed 2,304 acres in Placer and Nevada counties. Although more than 50 structures were threatened, just two were destroyed and another damaged.

Once evacuations and road closures were lifted, and the threat of further damage from the fire subsided, the local community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Upon nearing containment, as area residents regularly expressed gratitude to firefighters protecting the community, Cal Fire officials thanked Nevada County for its support for their crews.

“Cal Fire Nevada-Yuba-Placer Fire Chief George Morris III and Cal Fire Incident Management Team 1 Commander Bret Gouvea, along with all the firefighters assigned to the Lowell Fire would like to extend their gratitude and appreciation for the overwhelming support and cooperation throughout this emergency situation,” the statement read. “According to Randy Hinkle, a local Cal Fire firefighter, ‘the community showed incredible support for us and we want to recognize their efforts which have not gone unnoticed.’

“You helped us help you!!”

Area residents who later in September and early October watched with horror as the Valley Fire swept through 76,000 acres and more than 2,000 structures — nearly 1,300 homes — in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, realized how fortunate western Nevada County was to avoid such devastation.

The Valley Fire, and the Butte Fire — which in Amador and Calaveras counties consumed 70,868 acres and 475 residences during the time frame — were among 6,297 fires that Cal Fire reports consumed 307,595 acres in 2015.

Both the number of fires and the total acres burnt marked a sharp rise over 2014, which saw 4,272 fires burning 191,299 acres across California.

Adding fuel to the danger of wild fire in the western Nevada County was the ongoing drought, also one of the top stories in 2015.

Deeper into drought

Although recent rain and snow has helped to “green up” the landscape of western Nevada County, and some locals point to El Niño as a cure or at least a salve to the state’s water woes, the drought, however, isn’t leaving anytime soon.

“Out of the last four years, we’re about a year short of precipitation, broadly speaking,” said Jim Mathews, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “How serious is the drought? Well, it hasn’t rained in a year.”

Nevada Irrigation District officials noted in October the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a persistent and intensified drought for this region.

“If we have a normal (rain) year, some of our reservoirs would likely fill, but we would still be asking for conservation,” said Nevada Irrigation District Water Operations Manager Chip Close.

Close was one of four members a December panel discussion on the drought, focused on conservation efforts in 2015 and what 2016 might entail.

Several of the panel members referred to Nevada County as being fortunate to have received more than 30 inches of rainfall in the past year of the four-year drought, while elsewhere in the state more dire circumstances are being reported, with wells running dry and much lower levels of rainfall, such as 18 inches of rain in the past year for Sacramento, while areas such as Fresno received as little as 7 inches.

Also discussed was a looming threat that a bark beetle infestation poses to Sierra trees, which are vulnerable in drought conditions. Placer County proclaimed a local emergency on earlier this month, seeking funding for the removal of a high number of dead and dying trees.

Hundreds receive free health care

In November, several hundred people converged on Grass Valley’s Veterans Memorial Building to receive medical, dental and vision care at a two-day free health clinic organized by California CareForce and supported by hundreds of volunteers.

In partnership with the California Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, California CareForce has held 11 free clinics throughout the state since 2011.

More than 70 medical professionals, including dentists, nurses, medical doctors, optometrists and oral surgeons, volunteered their time for the Grass Valley clinic, which was also supported by several different health-care entities, including Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, Sierra Family Medical Clinic, Western Sierra Medical Clinic and the Chapa-De Indian Health Program.

In addition, more than 350 volunteers were on hand to help, and several local churches, businesses and services organizations donated food for those volunteers.

The clinic was expected to provide an estimated $450,000 in health care services, said lead Grass Valley host organizer Mindy Oberne.

Oberne said the clinic served around 400 people on Saturday, and an additional several hundred on Sunday, many of whom arrived in the early hours of the morning to be seen on a first-come, first-served basis.

“They’re so relieved, number one, that anyone cares, and number two, that they can actually be taken care of,” Oberne said.

Amgen puts Nevada City in spotlight

In May, the Amgen Tour of California made its third appearance in western county, host the start of the second stage in Nevada City.

In addition to six months of planning, working with Amgen officials and the street construction, more than 100 local volunteers teamed up with the Amgen crew to make sure the Broad Street went off without a hitch.

“It’s a lot of work,” said volunteer coordinator Dee Samuels. Luckily for Samuels, she has a crew of nearly 110 volunteers.

The throng of more than 140 riders did a parade lap on Broad Street before zipping down Pine Street, through Nevada City, along Ridge Road and through downtown Grass Valley, thrilling thousands of cycling enthusiasts that lined the roadways to cheer them on.

“This is the first year that we were able to bring the students and be a part of it,” said Mt. Saint Mary’s teacher Sheri Doerr, who brought students grades 3-5 to the corner of Mill Street and Neal Street in Grass Valley to watch the race. “We’ve talked about cycling, and a lot of the kids have parents who ride road bikes and what not, so we’ve talked about this all along. Our fourth-grade teacher was at Paris last year and was at the finish of the Tour De France. So we just said we got to go see these guys, they’re all world-class cyclists, and we’re only a couple blocks away, we couldn’t miss it. So here we are, and they’re very excited.”

NEO opens youth center in Grass Valley

In one room, a pair of teens gathered to watch a live band perform on a small stage; others sat in a smaller space nearby, munching on snacks around a table.

In the next room, two young girls were in the middle of a competitive game of foosball.

Outside, 17-year-old William Stearns gave local nonprofit NEO’s youth center his seal of approval.

“I like the atmosphere of it,” Stearns said. “It just gives off really good vibes.”

Stearns and his peers joined NEO’s staff, board members and community supporters to celebrate the opening of the organization’s new Joerschke Drive youth space with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house.

The youth center will be the only center in the county open to all teens, said Lynn Skrukrud, NEO’s co-founder and co-director, making it an invaluable resource in an area suffering from a lack of community spaces for young people.

“It’s an ongoing, notorious problem in Nevada County that there’s nowhere for teens to go,” Skrukrud said. “We definitely feel like we can fill that void that has been seen here for a long time.”

Dorsey development project withdrawn, reapplied

The owner of the proposed Dorsey Marketplace shopping center returned with a revised project design to the City of Grass Valley in December, eight months after withdrawing a draft plan to the city’s Development Review Committee.

Russell Jeter, the owner and developer of the 26.75-acre property, resubmitted an application to the City of Grass Valley Wednesday afternoon. The new blueprint outlined Jeter’s plan to develop an area adjacent to the Dorsey Drive interchange into a large-scale residential and community center.

With the reapplication, Jeter replaced a theater in the original proposal with an apartment complex. In addition, he plans to build a community dog park at the site.

Jeter’s project elicited heated responses from the community after he submitted a conceptual development plan to the city in February 2014.

The Washington-based investor withdrew his application in April, shortly after filing a formal development plan to the city. He said that he withheld the project in order to “spend more time on the design components and the community care components.”

Nevada City’s Rossi realizes F-1 dream

Alexander Rossi, a Nevada City native, was the lone American to race in Formula 1 United States Grand Prix race in Austin, Texas, marking the first time a U.S. driver competed in F1 since Scott Speed in 2007.

In September, Rossi realized a childhood dream in signing with F-1 team Manor Marussia and taking to the track for his debut in Singapore.

The path has been a long and winding one for the 24-year-old, which began with an afternoon of racing with this father, Pieter, in Las Vegas at the age of 10.

“I’ve been prepared for this opportunity for quite a while,” Rossi told the Associated Press.

Lamphier resigns Grass Valley City Council seat

A child porn trial involving a former Nevada County supervisor has been postponed repeatedly and is set to start early this year.

Terry Lamphier has been charged with three counts of having or possessing digital obscene images of a person younger than 18. The criminal investigation against Lamphier was sparked by an anonymous letter just a week before the Nov. 4, 2014, election in which he won a seat on the Grass Valley City Council.

Lamphier — who said he did not knowingly click on, visit or download any inappropriate material from child porn sites — won a seat on the council in November but resigned in January, two days after he was sworn in. He faces a maximum sentence of one year in jail on each count, and potentially could be required to register as a sex offender for 10 years.

Guilty verdicts in Gold Country Lenders case

In June, after more than two weeks in deliberation, a jury returned a guilty verdict in a number of the 61 counts filed against Gold Country Lenders CEO Phil Lester and CFO Susan Laferte.

Lester and Laferte each faced one count of using a scheme to defraud, 50 counts of offering securities for sale by means of an untrue statement or omission of a material fact, and 10 counts of financial elder abuse, after allegedly defrauding investors over a period of eight years. Lester was found guilty of 57 counts, while Laferte was found guilty of 35 counts. The jury also found true special allegations that both defendants defrauded investors of more than $1.3 million, and of aggravated white-collar crime.

In October, a new sentencing date was scheduled for Feb. 5. in the case originally filed in 2012.

41 horses rescued in joint effort

The volunteers started a little after 7 a.m. Wednesday, with a layer of hoarfrost still on the ground. And as dusk fell, they were still struggling to corral and transport 41 semi-wild horses to safety after they were seized by Nevada County Animal Control.

Horse lovers with trailers were on hand to help animal control officers and Sammie’s Friends co-founder Cheryl Wicks round up the horses, many of which were underweight, from where they had been illegally pastured off Dog Bar Road.

The horses, wary of the humans and completely untrained, proved difficult to wrangle. After a lot of patience, the first seven were loaded into a trailer by about 9 a.m. — but the rest broke for the hills.

“We were trying to round them up for a long, long time,” Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Sam Brown, head of Animal Control, said, adding that the last of the horses were loaded into trailers after dark. “We tried everything and anything — feeding them, corralling them, walking lines with (quads), people on horseback and people walking, anything we could do. It was a good effort by everyone on the scene. Without all those volunteers, we could not have done this.”

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