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Top 10 stories: Turning the page on 2018

Weather, tragedy and entertainment kept the presses running in 2018. Headlines inspired Rogue Valley residents to debate online, make their voices heard and give back to the community.

We browsed our 2018 papers and compiled a list of our top stories and then voted to create the top 10. While there are other stories worthy of making the list, here is what we came up with:

Smoke

Residents of the Rogue Valley are breathing easier now that the summer smoke is gone, but the impact of having the worst quality of air in the country is still being felt.

Wines are often praised for their smoky aromas, but in late September, one of the largest players in California’s wine industry — Copper Cane — rejected $4 million worth of contracts with regional growers, claiming the grapes were tainted by smoke. The story gets juicer, as some growers suggested it was a ploy to get out of expensive contracts to buy cheaper grapes elsewhere and hinted that a lawsuit may be filed in the future.

Tourism, too, felt the heat. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival says it lost nearly $2 million because of cancellations, forcing 16 layoffs. Callahan’s Mountain Lodge near the Siskiyou Summit claims it refunded $15,000 a day to unhappy campers who wouldn’t be making their trips.

There’s no masking it — smoke hurt Southern Oregon’s lungs and pocketbooks.

Fires

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Crews had their hands full after lightning strikes July 15 sparked 145 wildfires in Southern Oregon, including the Taylor Creek and Klondike fires.

The Klondike fire, ignited 9 miles northwest of Selma, blackened over 175,000 acres in the footprint of the 2002 Biscuit fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, but no structures fell victim to the area’s largest blaze. High winds fanned the flames of the Taylor Creek fire, scorching nearly 53,000 acres, and eventually causing it to merge with the Klondike in August, to create a 200,000-acre megafire.

Fire got up close and personal with fleeing Central Point residents, as the July 17 Penninger fire burned 97 acres. Starting near the Jackson County Expo and burning toward the Medford airport, the blaze killed a 60-year-old homeless man and destroyed five outbuildings, though no homes were lost.

Northern California took the brunt of fire season, with the Carr and Camp fires. The deadliest blaze in California history, the Camp fire caused 86 fatalities and nearly wiped out the town of Paradise. The fast-moving Carr fire took Redding by surprise, killing five people and burning down entire neighborhoods. Together, the two Northern California fires burned over 25,000 residences.

Head-on crashes

A pair of head-on, fatal car crashes shook residents of the Rogue Valley as promising lives were lost to drivers who, for incomprehensible reasons, turned around and drove the wrong way on Interstate 5.

The first occurred Jan. 7 when Grace Elizabeth Ward, of Red Bluff, intentionally drove the wrong way on Interstate 5 near Anderson, California, killing Ryan John Folsom, a Medford father of three. Folsom had been on his way to a job interview at University of California Davis and was close to becoming a doctor. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $300,000 in less than a month to cover funeral expenses and Folsom’s student debt. Ward, who suffered a broken leg in the crash, was sentenced Dec. 7 to at least 18 years in prison.

The second occurred May 19 when Gayle Ward, 65, of Vancouver turned her car around on southbound I-5 north of Rice Hill and smashed into three Eagle Point High School seniors, killing all four. Luciana Tellez, Giselle Montano and Esmeralda Nava had all been seniors just weeks away from graduating from Eagle Point High School.

Police shootings

Four local law enforcement agencies saw officer-involved shootings, including one fatal in Eagle Point. On Sept. 19, Eagle Point police Officer Daniel Cardenas shot a mentally ill man, 33-year-old Matthew Thayer Graves, after a scuffle in a Carl’s Jr. bathroom in which Cardenas mistook a Taser for a gun. A grand jury on Oct. 24 ruled Cardenas and backup officer CJ Davis were justified in the shooting. Graves’ family has filed suit against the city and Cardenas, claiming negligence and rights violations.

On Jan. 25, Veterans Affairs police Officer Marvin Seifert wounded knife-wielding Army veteran Gilbert Matthew Negrete at the department’s White City clinics. Seifert had attempted to subdue Negrete with pepper spray before resorting to lethal force. Seifert was cleared by a grand jury Feb. 1. Negrete was sentenced Oct. 26 to three years’ probation, during which he must complete treatment ordered by probation officials while staying clean and sober.

On March 29, Medford patrol Officer Tim Pickens fired a single shot that struck William Allen Shelton Jr. in the upper chest during a confrontation outside Shelton’s home in southwest Medford. Shelton had fired several shots from a rifle in an apartment complex, then pointed the weapon at officers. Shelton survived and faces several charges, including attempt to commit a Class A felony and felony unlawful use of a weapon. As of Dec. 6, he was at the Oregon State Hospital receiving treatment and evaluation to determine his fitness to proceed to trial. Pickens was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury on April 4.

On Oct. 23, Jackson County sheriff’s deputies returned fire in a shootout with Warren Alexander Rich, 22, who had barricaded himself inside his parents’ home near Eagle Point. No one was injured. The officers, Cpl. Jim Biddle and Deputy Jesus Murillo, were cleared of wrongdoing and Rich faces a charge of attempted aggravated murder.

Country Crossings cancellation

There won’t be an encore for Country Crossings. After the July 2018 festival, Country Crossings was on life support after it failed to pay The Expo, vendors and other agencies tens of thousands of dollars. In November, officials pulled the plug on the 2019 festival after key sponsor Bi-Mart severed ties with the event.

Beginning in 2017, Country Crossings drew tens of thousands of country music fans to Central Point and featured musicians Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Alan Jackson.

Country Crossings is not the only concert series headed to the exits in 2018. Apple Jam is toast in Jackson County after county commissioners rejected the festival’s application for its 2019 location. Dozens of Applegate Valley residents signed a petition, claiming their neighborhood is too small for the multi-day concert, and the commissioners agreed 2-1 with them in April.

Election news

Voters flocked to the polls Nov. 6 at rates usually only seen in presidential election years. Just over 67 percent of registered voters in Jackson County to make sure their voices were heard in the hotly contested midterms.

Jeff Golden defeated Jessica Gomez in the State Senate District 3 election to replace Alan DeBoer. Gomez called local PAC Mi Voz Cuentan’s online attack ad “hateful and racist.” Golden said he didn’t have anything to do with the ad that depicted an ax in the forest that read “Just because someone’s name sounds Latino doesn’t mean they support programs that benefit our community. Don’t be an axe (sic). Vote for Jeff Golden for state Senate.” Golden’s win helped give the democrats a supermajority in the state legislature.

Republican Greg Walden soundly defeated democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner for U.S. Representative, District 2, but the GOP lost control of the House after the “Blue Wave” flipped 40 seats.

Vulgarian Curt Ankerburg ran in the Ward 1 city council race again, and voters rejected him again, selecting Alex Poythress instead. Counselor Kim Wallan was picked by voters to join the state House in Salem, but her waffling on when she should resign her seat left the rest of the council with their hands tied.

Recycling cutbacks

In the spring, residents learned most of the cardboard, plastic milk jugs, newspapers and cans they were placing in the Rogue Disposal curbside recycling bins were being dumped into the landfill. Rogue Disposal blamed shake-ups in worldwide recycling that forced it to dump 2,700 tons of recyclables in the landfill under a six-month waiver granted by the state. By July it had resumed recycling some of those materials when the market allows. Rogue Disposal also began accepting plastics #1 and #2, e-waste and paper at its transfer station in White City.

Student marches

Students throughout Jackson County staged marches and walkouts in February and March as part of a nationwide student response to school shootings. Spurred by the Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, high school students at North and South Medford, Phoenix, Ashland and elsewhere called for action on improving school safety and strengthening gun control laws.

Homelessness

An annual count tallied at least 732 homeless people living in Jackson County in 2018, an increase of 99 found by volunteers who fanned out into the community during the previous year.

The post office on Riverside changed its lobby hours from 24-7 to closing on business days at 8 p.m. after aggressive transients and drug users were making themselves at home. A postal union representative said the March 12 change happened because of problems including vandalism, piles of fecal matter, trash fires, and threats against employees.

The homeless didn’t just make messes, they cleaned them up too. Rogue Retreat started the “Clean Sweep” project, putting homeless people to work. They pick up messes downtown, wash windows, sweep sidewalks and even deal with stuff nobody wants to get near — dog poop.

New jail proposal

County officials in March surveyed local residents to float the idea of a new jail, which has been plagued with overcrowding for years. But the majority balked at the $1.09 tax rate it would take. Since then, County Administrator Danny Jordan has come up with a plan to wait until 2020 to impose the a new bond — once the library bond is paid off — and reduce the rate to 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, resulting in a net increase to taxpayers of 60 cents. The county in October bought 47 acres near the sheriff’s office for the new jail at a cost of $6.56 million.

Honorable mentions

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