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The Spruce Lake fire, part of the High Cascades complex, sends up an ominous plume over Crater Lake National Park last summer. [Photo by Dave Grimes, Crater Lake ranger]

Rogue Valley's top 10 stories

The news out of 2017 may not have made all Rogue Valley residents happy, but it certainly kept their attention, as weather, changing leadership, community issues and the economy produced headlines and bylines throughout the year.

We perused our 2017 archives and came up with a list of 20 top stories. We whittled that down to our Top 10, plus 10 also-rans. There are no doubt other stories worthy of being on this list, and if yours didn't make it, we apologize. But, for what it's worth, here's what we came up with:

1. Fire and smoke

Southern Oregon, and much of the state, was socked by smoke for big chunks of August and September as forest fires raged across the landscape. The State of Jefferson — Southern Oregon and Northern California — had 15 major fires or multiple-fire complexes burning in late August, with virtually all of them started by lightning that came amid the dry heat of summer.

The Chetco Bar fire, which was ignited July 12 by lightning about 16 miles west of Selma, was the biggest of the bunch, torching more than 191,000 acres and burning until Oct. 31. When Chetco Effect winds blew the fire westward, coastal residents were evacuated, and fire crews set up defensive positions on the east side of Brookings.

Other major fires included the 39,000-acre Miller complex, which involved 15 lightning-caused fires west and south of the Applegate Valley; the High Cascades complex, which burned 27,000 acres near Crater Lake National Park; and the Umpqua North complex, which burned 43,000 acres along the North Umpqua River and shut down state Highway 138 for weeks.

The fires were comfortably distant from the Rogue Valley's major cities, but their impact was distinctly felt, as air quality ranged from unhealthy to hazardous for weeks, and area residents and visitors were warned to limit their outdoor exposure.

2. The Trump effect

Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States Jan. 20, and with a Republican Congress (mostly) backing him, he began making sweeping changes to the American political and social landscape. His actions and comments raised hackles among some, including the estimated 8,000 people — some say that estimate is low — who participated in the local Women's March, which coincided with similar marches across the country.

With one in six jobs in the Medford metropolitan area connected to health care, Trump's attacks on the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — raised concerns among providers and Medicaid patients alike. He also drew heat from various quarters for his immigration policies, including a decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed an estimated 800,000 young people brought here illegally by their parents to remain in the country.

The president was praised and criticized for his actions in reviewing national monuments that were established by his predecessors, with an eye toward reducing their size and limiting restrictions on activities within them. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is primarily in Jackson County, is among those targeted for downsizing.

3. OnTrack's ongoing issues

Medford-based OnTrack Inc., which has long been the primary provider of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs in Jackson County, came under fire from former employees and the state of Oregon for management and program issues. Its founder and executive director, Rita Sullivan, was dismissed in January.

A scathing report by the Oregon Department of Human Services found children in the OnTrack's crisis housing living in "deplorable conditions," prompting referral of new clients to a different addiction recovery service until the sites could be cleaned and remodeled. Oregon health officials later accused OnTrack of failing to maintain adequate records, and the agency closed its teen residential program after the state said its facility was not safe or sanitary.

OnTrack also faced lawsuits and legal claims from employees alleging whistleblower violations and abuse by managers and from a client alleging abuse by a staff member. In September, Alan Ledford, a licensed psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology, was hired as the agency's new executive director.

4. Homelessness

Medford and Ashland joined a long list of West Coast cities struggling with homeless populations. Both cities enacted or expanded exclusion zone ordinances, which allow them to prohibit repeat offenders from being in designated areas of the cities' downtowns.

A drawn-out effort to create a tiny-house community for the homeless in Medford came to fruition Oct. 31, when 20 residents began moving into the 14 tiny houses in Hope Village in the 700 block of West McAndrews Road.

An Associated Press analysis determined 185,000 people were considered homeless in Oregon, Washington and California in 2017, 19,000 more than two years prior. A survey conducted by ACCESS came up with 633 homeless people in Jackson County.

Meanwhile, both Medford and Ashland expanded shelter options for the homeless in winter months. Medford volunteers are staffing the Kelly Warming Shelter in the First United Methodist Church not far from downtown, after the church stepped up with a variety of building improvements to meet city demands. Ashland expanded its shelter program this year at local churches and city-owned Pioneer Hall to six nights a week.

5. Marijuana explosion

The issuing of recreational marijuana business licenses in 2016 resulted in an explosion of new farming and retail operations, with Jackson County the site of more marijuana businesses than all other counties aside from Multnomah and Lane, both with substantially larger populations than Jackson County.

That produced more jobs and income for growers and sellers, but it also produced issues. Marijuana grown in Southern Oregon legally had begun showing up illegally, with some regularity, in other states where pot possession remains a crime. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked Congress in June to crack down on the medical marijuana industry because of black market sales. Jackson County had other concerns, raising its maximum fine for code violations related to marijuana from $10,000 to $20,000 in response to a stream of complaints from neighbors about odor, noise and junk associated with cannabis grows.

Some growers had their own issues, accusing the county of reneging on a promise to grandfather in existing pot farms on rural residential lands, which were declared off-limits to non-personal-use marijuana grows in 2016.

6. Economy picks up steam

Like much of Oregon outside of Portland and the Willamette Valley, Jackson County was slow to emerge from the Great Recession. But that now seems to be in the rearview mirror, with employment up and new businesses opening across the county.

Statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed 100,116 people were employed in Jackson County during May, the first time ever for the county to top the 100,000 mark. That trimmed the raw jobless rate to 3.9 percent and the seasonally adjusted rate to 4.2 percent. Unemployment numbers were down year over year in every month, with the biggest drag on employment not a lack of jobs, but a lack of job seekers.

Other notable economic events during the year included:


  • The debut of American Airlines at the Medford airport and a move by United Airlines to larger jets as the airport continued to rack up record-breaking passenger numbers. Longtime airport manager Bern Case retired in December.

  • Lithia Motors added dealerships in the Northeast and Los Angeles as it moved closer to becoming a $10 billion revenue company.

  • Brammo battery technology was sold to Cummins in deal worth $70 million.

  • The third phase of development of the Northgate Center started across Highway 238 from the first two phases, which include Dick's Sporting Goods, REI and Trader Joe's. The third phase is zoned for commercial services and professional activity rather than retail, and its initial tenants will include an optical business, a dialysis center and a Starbucks.

 7. Callahan's shooting

A case involving a violent and random murder at Callahan's Lodge took a bizarre turn when the killer was later run down by the driver of a pickup as the shooter stood on Interstate 5 near the California border.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, Neal Brian Norman, 50, of Pacific Grove, California, shot and killed Ryan Bagley, a cook, inside Callahan's Lodge near Exit 6 off I-5, then stole the dead man's car and headed south on the interstate. Shortly after, Tom Moxon of Eagle Point and his son were driving south on I-5 when they encountered Norman, who had blocked both lanes of I-5 with the stolen car and began firing shots at their vehicle. Moxon struck the shooter with his pickup, killing him. Moxon's actions likely saved lives, as the gun turned out to be an AK-47 with a high-capacity drum magazine and 50 rounds of ammunition.

No motive was established for the actions by Norman, whose own vehicle was apparently nearly out gas when he entered Callahan's. Relatives said he had suffered from mental health issues.

8. Housing shortage

Jackson County's improving economic conditions came with a downside, as housing shortages popped up across the Rogue Valley. With a median sales price for single-family residences at nearly $270,000 at year's end and new homes starting in the $300,000 range, anyone without a solid income would be hard-pressed to purchase a house. Median prices of existing homes at year's end exceeded $400,000 in Ashland, neared $380,000 in Jacksonville and were up by 49 percent countywide in the past five years.

That pushed more people into a rental market that already had a vacancy rate of below 2 percent. Tenants in some apartment buildings received rent increase notices of up to 40 percent, and the monthly median rental rate in Ashland hit $1,200.

While some discussed establishing rent controls, people in the rental and real estate businesses said the culprit is supply and demand, with the supply still not recovered from the dramatic drop-off that occurred during the Great Recession. Builders say housing material costs have skyrocketed in the aftermath of home-destroying hurricanes and massive wildfires. They also say there are too few available lots, while efforts to expand the cities' urban growth boundaries plod along through multiple land-use reviews.

9. A hero's death

The Rogue Valley and the entire state of Oregon grieved the death of two men, including 23-year-old Ashland High School graduate Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, who were stabbed to death May 26 as they tried to help a pair of young women on a Portland light-rail train who were being targeted by an anti-Muslim tirade.

Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, is accused of killing Meche and 53-year-old Ricky John Best of Happy Valley, an Army veteran and a city employee, after they came to the women's aid. Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, also was injured in the attack. Christian's social media postings indicate an affinity for Nazis and political violence. He is accused of aggravated murder, intimidation — the state equivalent of a hate crime — and being a felon in possession of a weapon, and is awaiting trial.

Meche was celebrated — and his family aided — by an outpouring of community support in the Rogue Valley and the Portland area. He was praised as a man "would stand up for anyone" and as someone who "stood up for justice and love." His mother, Deliverance, said she forgave his killer and wrote a letter to President Trump, asking him to condemn violence and take a stand against hate speech and hate groups.

10. A total eclipse of the sun

Oregon drew the nation's, and the world's, attention as a long-awaiting total eclipse of the sun first swept across the state on the morning of Aug. 21. While the Rogue Valley was outside the path of totality — where people could view the moon completely blotting out the sun — crowds still gathered locally to see 93 percent of Old Sol covered.

The path of totality stretched from the Newport area to Eastern Oregon and drew hundreds of thousands of gawkers, creating massive traffic jams in some areas, but giving local tourism businesses a boost. Solar eclipse glasses were in high demand, and some users found out in the days before the eclipse that their solar glasses might not provide the promised protection from the sun's rays.

The next total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States won't be until 2024. Oregon will miss out, with the total eclipse path crossing from Texas to Maine.

Other nominated stories (in order of votes received):


  • AllCare takes over mental health services, Jackson County lays off 200 employees.

  • Southern Oregon University loses $1.9 million in email scam.

  • Country Crossing music festival at the Expo in Central Point draws 20,000.

  • Former Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal enveloped in more lawsuits, ethics probe.

  • New Year starts off with massive winter storm that blanketed valley in deep snow.

  • Mental health issues exacerbated in Oregon by stringent commitment rules.

  • Costco opens its new store in Central Point.

  • Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings sold to Steven Saslow and their parent company renamed Rosebud Media.

  • Recycling efforts stall in the wake of China's refusal to take most recycled materials.

  • Wolves spread out across Southern Oregon as more follow in the footsteps of legendary OR-7.

 

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