2001: A wild ride

CN&R editors review the top stories of the year gone by

Muslim students met in concern for the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

Muslim students met in concern for the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

photo by Tom Angel

Whoa, Nellie! What a year it was! Terrorist attacks, rolling blackouts, the economy in the tank, the soap opera of county government. And to think that just 52 weeks ago everything seemed hunky-dory.

Remember 2000? The world was at relative peace. The U.S. economy was robust. The state and national governments were enjoying record surpluses. Nobody worried about the lights going out. Butte County ran, well, fairly efficiently.

With all the bad things that have happened in 2001, one date stands out: Sept. 11. In a year that saw things go sour on many levels, that day’s terrorist attacks were the culmination. Not only did they have devastating effects on the economy and precipitate a new war, they changed everyone’s view of the world and America’s place in it.

Here’s our look back at the top stories of 2001, the unforgettable first year of the new millennium.

The day time stood still
What were you doing when you learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? This is a question just about every adult American can answer. Sept. 11 is one of those rare markers, a date that will go down in history.

The attacks and their consequences, including the deepening worldwide recession as well as the war in Afghanistan, are easily the biggest story of the year nationally and internationally. They are also the biggest story of the year in most local communities, and Chico is no exception.

Not that anything dramatic happened here. Indeed, members of the Chico community responded calmly to the attacks, rushing to reassure their Muslim neighbors that they were safe and gathering together in churches and downtown peace and solidarity convocations to help each other heal.

But we had to adjust to being at war again. Many Chicoans worried about the innocent Afghans who would die by American bombs. Others jumped on the war bandwagon, eager for revenge on the terrorists who’d killed more than 3,000 Americans in just an hour.

The real impact of Sept. 11 in Chico hit on a personal level. None of us felt the same afterwards. The world had changed forever. We felt vulnerable and uncertain. For the first time since World War II, we knew that America was under attack by a formidable, canny foe. Our borders suddenly seemed porous, and foreigners were suspect. They could be plotting to release anthrax or smallpox, we thought, or even worse carrying a nuclear bomb in a suitcase.

How this all will play out remains to be seen. As the year drew to a close, the war had ended with the Taliban destroyed but Osama bin Laden nowhere in sight. In the U.S., the urge to increase “homeland security” had resulted in a number of constitutionally dubious plans, including the use of secret military tribunals to try accused foreign terrorists. Many Americans, including Chicoans, wondered how much we would limit our freedoms in order to protect ourselves. And we wondered what 2002 would bring.

Soap opera in Oroville
By any measure, the embarrassing series of overreaching missteps on the part of the three-member majority of the Butte County Board of Supervisors was the top strictly local story of the year.

2001 started quietly for Butte County, but by early spring there were rumors of some sort of major personnel shift afoot. Kim Yamaguchi’s November election had tilted the board in a decidedly conservative way, and the winds of change, as they say, were blowing. Several longtime county managers were said to be taking the hint and thinking about leaving.

The rumors were confirmed in March, when the new three-member board majority fired Department of Development Services Director Tom Parilo.

It was a surprise move—especially to Parilo himself, who to this day has refused to talk publicly about his ouster. But veteran Chico-area Supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx, a consistent two-member minority, sure did, charging that Yamaguchi illegally orchestrated the vote with Supervisors Curt Josiassen and Bob Beeler before the meeting—the first of what would turn out to be a half-dozen accusations that the three men violated public-meetings laws.

Then, only two weeks after Parilo’s ouster, another bombshell was dropped: Longtime (and popular) Chief Administrative Officer John Blacklock announced his retirement. There were rumors, unconfirmed but abounding, that Blacklock’s retirement was a pre-emptive move to avoid being fired by a board that seemed hell-bent on installing new management. Blacklock denied this, though, and said “it was just time” to leave. Indeed.

Kim Yamaguchi, controversial conservative

photo by Tom Angel

In June, Probation Chief Helen Harberts was put on a mysterious administrative leave—for reasons that remain nebulous—and she remains out of the office indefinitely. The supervisors, who spent most of the year infighting over Yamaguchi’s redistricting Plan 5, have yet to agree on permanent replacements for either Parilo or Blacklock (their departments are currently headed up by interim staff).

With the state projecting a $12 billion deficit next year, Butte County is anticipating raids on its already-stretched budget. It took the better part of a year for county management to sign a contract with its Superior Court personnel, who staged a walkout last month to protest the contract negotiations.

We won’t bore you here by rehashing the fighting over Yamaguchi’s brazen redistricting Plan 5 and the subsequent successful referendum drive led by Dolan and Houx. You’ll hear and read plenty about that between now and March 5, when you’ll be able to vote on it. Suffice to say that the county still owes Chuck Bell, the supervisors’ $275-an-hour lawyer who unsuccessfully sued the county clerk over Plan 5, thousands of dollars in legal fees.

It all adds up a to a pretty bleak year for the county, and next year doesn’t look any brighter.

When the lights went out
Was California’s infamous energy crisis really a crisis?

Recall that it began in late winter with rolling blackouts, and everyone was predicting disaster when summer’s heat arrived. But, thanks to unusually cool weather and unprecedented conservation efforts, there were no blackouts during summer, and in the meantime the state negotiated long-term contracts that assured us that the lights would stay on indefinitely. Suddenly everything was copasetic, right?

Wrong. For starters, there’s the small matter of $9 billion—that’s 9,000 million dollars—that it cost the state to buy energy when the utilities couldn’t do so. Combine that with a decline in tax revenues resulting from the depressed economy, especially following Sept. 11, and you’ve got a state that went, almost overnight, from being flush with surpluses to facing a nearly $12 billion budget shortfall.

The upshot? Cutbacks, cutbacks, cutbacks. All state agencies are trimming. Locally, that means cutbacks at both Butte College and Chico State University, with their resulting impacts on the local economy.

And those long-term contracts? Negotiated in secret by a desperate Gov. Gray Davis at a time when the utility companies held all the cards, they’re going to cost consumers dearly—far more than the current going rate for power—unless they somehow can be renegotiated.

Not only that, the contracts forced many existing alternative-energy sources, such as cogeneration, wind and geothermal operators, out of the picture, with the resulting loss of smog-free power. And they also committed the state to building a large number of new natural-gas power facilities, which do pollute.

In the meantime, Pacific Gas & Electric became the largest utility company in history to file for bankruptcy, and Southern California Edison went begging to the state for a bailout.

No, the energy crisis is far from over—and it remains one of the biggest stories of not only 2001, but also of years to come.

Poe fire burns Yankee Hill
Fire investigators said that it took only a tree branch falling on a power pole before dawn on Sept. 6 to start a fire that, within a day, became the fastest-moving and most destructive wildfire in Butte County history.

The Poe fire, as it became called, ended up burning more than 8,000 acres of the foothills above Oroville, including much of the tiny town of Yankee Hill. Firefighters called the blaze “more of a firestorm than a fire” and admitted that the flames moved so fast and were so huge that they considered leaving the area twice themselves, along with the hundreds of residents evacuated from their homes.

Temperatures in the high 90s and extremely low humidity levels drove the fire. At its height, more than 2,100 firefighters from around the state battled it. In the end, it burned 47 homes, 120 outbuildings and 155 vehicles. Damages were estimated at more than $6 million, making the Poe fire the most destructive blaze in Butte County history.

Injury became insult and then some, Yankee Hill residents said, when the state refused to declare Butte County a disaster area because of the fire. Guidelines for the declaration, which allows the state to reimburse the county for its cleanup expenses and gives federal emergency aid loans to fire victims, mandate that at least 150 homes have to be destroyed for a disaster to be declared, and Butte County’s total fell well short of that total.

Walking through the ruins of the Poe fire

photo by Tom Angel

At least one fire victim, though, called that excuse “pitiful,” pointing out that in a town of only 3,000 people, 47 homes was a substantial loss.

Wasn’t there supposed to be a strike?
A lot of Chico parents were holding their breath back in August, when school was supposed to start and the Chico Unified School District had yet to reach a contract agreement with its teachers. The union was crying “strike,” and district officials said they couldn’t afford the raise the teachers wanted.

The Chico Unified Teachers Association had declared impasse, and springtime talks with a state-appointed mediator did little to bring the sides closer together. The union was asking for an immediate 10.29 percent raise. The CUSD was offering a 2-percent “bonus"-type setup. Dueling press conferences announced progress—or lack thereof. Rallies and “Our Fair Share” buttons proliferated. Nearly half the district’s teacher population showed up to picket and then walk out of a May school board meeting.

By late summer, hope was being lost. Substitutes were interviewed for $275-a-day “scab” jobs. Parents threatened to keep their children home rather than send them across a picket line.

But in an 11th-hour move that the school board president later likened to “extortion,” the CUSD on Aug. 17 settled with CUTA, forking over a raise close to what the union had been seeking, one that the district said will cost $1 million over three years. But hey, school started on time.

The sides didn’t leave skipping off into the sunset; “lingering bitterness” may be too light a phrase. And with the state’s budget looking shaky, CUSD officials have hinted more cuts, including layoffs, may be in store for 2002.

Brothers in arms
Butte County made statewide headlines in July, when two of its sheriff’s deputies, Bill Hunter and Lt. Larry Estes, were killed in the line of duty.

The men were called to the Inskip Inn by owner Bob Duffey, who reported that his tenant, 36-year-old Rick Bracklow, had stolen his guns and threatened him after a dispute over some back rent Bracklow owed on the small cabin he lived in. The Inskip Inn is about as isolated as you can get in Butte County, sitting at the end of the Skyway, far above Magalia and Stirling City. Year-round, only Bracklow and Duffey lived there.

When Hunter and Estes walked into Bracklow’s cabin, unannounced and with guns drawn, apparently to question him about the alleged assault, Bracklow allegedly ambushed them, killing Hunter immediately in the darkened hallway leading into the cabin’s even darker living room.

A brief but fierce gun battle between Estes and Bracklow ensued, and both men were killed. Hunter was 26 and married less than a year. Estes was a 30-year veteran of the department. Bracklow’s father acknowledged in the days after the shooting that his son had a long history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medication just before he died.

The funeral for Hunter and Bracklow was massive, to say the least. Police officers and firefighters from as far away as Medford, Ore., attended, and the procession following the two hearses was almost nine miles long.

It closed down several of Chico’s streets for an entire morning.

Where, oh where is the school site?
As 2001 was winding to a close, Chico Unified School District officials were finally admitting what environmentalists and government agencies had been telling them for nearly three years: It’s going to be next to impossible to build a new high school on the chosen piece of land on the east side of Bruce Road.

Finally, the CUSD is looking to the west side—which its owner doesn’t want to sell in the district’s price range—and giving attention to choices it earlier set aside. The clock is ticking, because not only are the two existing high schools over capacity, but the bond passed in 1998 also is losing buying power by the minute.

The owners of the Bruce Road land, the Schmidbauer family of Eureka, know they have to set aside some of their land to preserve the endangered Butte County meadowfoam there. But they also want to make money by building 178 acres of houses, total, on both sides of the road. At first, the school district rode along on the wetlands fill permit for the residential development. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service balked, urging the CUSD to try for the west side after all.

The CUSD struck out on its own application-wise (the ball is now in the Army Corps of Engineers’ court), and by the end of the year the landowners’ representative, Jim Mann, was saying they’re not so willing to sell after all. He suggested the district try for a piece of land owned by Enloe Health System. Trouble is, the nonprofit doesn’t want to sell to the district, either. All of which begs the eternal question: What about the children?

Two sheriff’s deputies were killed in this Inskip cabin.

photo by Tom Angel

Industrial-park bridge defeated
No matter what you called the bridge proposed for Comanche Creek—part of a much-needed access route or a private driveway built with public funds—the fight over it perfectly distilled a battle that has raged in this fair town for decades. And in the end it was viewed as either the last triumphant gasp by local enviros in their 20-year war with developers or the turning of the tide, which meant liberals had again gained the upper hand in Chico politics.

What we know for sure is that, in a special June election, less than one-third of the registered voters in the city bothered to cast ballots, and Measure A lost by a 55-45 percent margin, 5,097 against and 4,181 in favor. If passed, the measure would have amended the General Plan and put $2.9 million of city money into the extension of Otterson Drive out of the Hegan Lane Business Park and over the creek, tying into the Midway­Park Avenue intersection.

Proponents argued the project would alleviate future traffic problems in the area and help the park lure quality businesses and jobs to town. Opponents, including many residents of the neighborhood, charged that the project was a taxpayer giveaway to a private interest and would ruin the riparian habitat along the creek.

Opponents bucked the City Council’s conservative majority, which sparked the initiative when it voted in favor of the bridge, as well as most of the economic-development crowd and the Greater Chico Chamber of Commerce, whose CEO Jim Goodwin spent considerable time and energy working to pass the measure.

Business park owner Doug Guillon called the voting results “bullshit” and said he was moving to Idaho.

The victory may be short-lived, as the matter can be broached again come this June. However, the property owners have threatened to build something like a mini warehouse on the property as sort of a payback for the bridge’s defeat.

Promenade up The Esplanade
The transitional-housing program known as the Esplanade House received perhaps more publicity than it ever dreamed of last summer, when its plans to move and expand caused a neighborhood backlash of ugly proportions.

In August, following a series of loud and brutish meetings held at the Chico Area Recreation District offices, before the Chico Planning Commission and finally in front of the Chico City Council, Esplanade House opponents, fearing the wrong element (families facing homelessness) moving in and polluting their cozy, north-Chico neighborhoods, were finally silenced (somewhat) when the council voted not to appeal the Planning Commission vote to allow the project.

A month earlier, the council had listened to angry neighbors protested the Esplanade House’s plans to move from its present location in an old motel on East and The Esplanade to a vacant field about a half-mile to the north. At that meeting the council voted 5-1 to hear the appeal, but not before directing staff to look for alternate locations, even though the project manager, builder Greg Webb, said no other spot would do.

The dynamics were odd, in that Webb, a regular and generous contributor to conservative politicians, found himself up against those on the council he had supported.

Still, the council heard the appeal, which was made by real estate agent Karen Duncan, who charged that the property had not been properly zoned for such a project and that the Police Department had not given a complete report on the number of calls it had made to the current site.

City staff and officials recited numbers and statistics and tried to explain to the concerned, fearful and in some cases downright seething opposition why the Planning Commission approval was appropriate. At one point during the rowdy proceedings, Vice-Mayor Maureen Kirk, sitting in for Mayor Dan Herbert, banged the mayor’s gavel with so much force it was a wonder the wooden mallet didn’t splinter.

In the end the council voted 4-1 on a motion by Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan to deny the appeal and let the project move forward. Voting in favor were Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Kirk, Nguyen-Tan and Steve Bertagna, who made a rare break from the conservative ranks in doing so.

Tom Tenorio, executive director of the Community Action Agency, which runs the Esplanade House, expressed gratitude that the project moved ahead but was apprehensive about gaining funding to keep the project on track.

“It’s not over yet,” he said.

Deadly tank explosion rocks Chico
On Feb. 13 a huge explosion rocked south Chico when fuel vapors in an empty aboveground gasoline-storage tank being cleaned in preparation for removal was sparked by improperly grounded equipment. The force blew the tank’s heavy metal lid 75 feet into the air and fatally injured 36-year-old Modesto resident Jack Nickerson Jr., who was inside the tank, mopping up sludge, when it exploded.

A second worker, Randall Barclay, 48, of Durham, suffered second-degree burns over most of his body and spent the next few months hospitalized at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

The tank was one of five that had stored up to 120,000 gallons of Shell Oil products at Jesse Lange Distributing on The Midway about a quarter-mile south of East Park Avenue. A News & Review investigation revealed that when tank exploded, no federal, state or local agency had checked on project compliance with regulations designed to ensure worker safety.

Only underground tanks receive such oversight. Aboveground systems are left up to county officials, and counties like Butte too often make the deadly assumption that businesses and their contractors will comply with regulations—what one local consultant referred to as a “wrinkle in the regulatory fabric.”

Ten months later, Barclay painfully continues both his mental and physical recovery. More tanks in the area are scheduled for removal, and the county still has no oversight process in place.