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From a fox to fire, mudslide to marijuana: Here are The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2017

Tribune photographer Joe Johnston won an award for best news photo for this image of Forrest Scott, who looks out at the burning Hill Fire from his home near Santa Margarita in June 2017 at the beginning of what would become a devastating fire season across California.
Tribune photographer Joe Johnston won an award for best news photo for this image of Forrest Scott, who looks out at the burning Hill Fire from his home near Santa Margarita in June 2017 at the beginning of what would become a devastating fire season across California. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Nobody can blame you for missing a thing or two this year.

On the heels of a contentious election year, 2017 was a 365-day torrent of news events that seemed to come and go at a dizzying pace. From the devastating (the largest wildfire in modern state history, the mass shooting in Las Vegas), to the tragic (three San Luis Obispo County Jail inmate deaths, the loss of a beloved community reporter) and the perplexing (what might SLO County schools do without the settlement from Diablo Canyon?), this year barreled through like a freight train.

While political infighting at the county Board of Supervisors and a few local cities made us sigh, the heroics of local firefighters and police officers helping out at the massive Thomas Fire made us cheer.

Before we move on to what’s promising to be another tumultuous year, here’s a recap of the stories that captured our attention and defined San Luis Obispo County in 2017.

10. Adorable fox makes Arroyo Grande its home — then it’s euthanized

This fall, a friendly little gray fox began popping up all over the Village of Arroyo Grande, prompting numerous Facebook posts and videos of the animal playing with neighborhood dogs and yes, even media coverage.

Then in November, it was discovered that a trapper with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services department captured and killed the fox after a resident claimed it had killed chickens and was interfering with pets.

Cue the massive outcry, a Go-Fund me campaign, a fox-specific City Council meeting and even a candlelight vigil. A documentary about the entire ordeal is also in the works from a local filmmaker, so expect to hear more about the town’s fallen mascot soon.

#RIPFoxy

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A settlement over the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that would pay $85 million to San Luis Obispo County agencies is in jeopardy after a judge disagreed with a plan to have PG&E ratepayers foot the bill. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

9. SLO County might not get Diablo Canyon closure settlement

A year ago, representatives from PG&E, San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Coastal Unified School District and six local cities came together to negotiate an $85 million settlement to help the community prepare for the loss of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant when it is expected to close in 2025. The settlement was expected to offset lost property taxes (especially at the San Luis Coastal school district) and spur economic development.

Then in November, just a month before it was scheduled to go before the California Public Utilities Commission for a final vote, an administrative law judge ruled that he didn’t see why ratepayers should foot the bill for such a settlement and recommended against the commission approving it (the judge also recommended cutting funding for PG&E’s $350 million proposed employee retention and retraining program in half).

Local representatives responded to the news with dismay, and many said they would continue to push for the settlement when it went before the commission in December.

The commission delayed its meeting to January, however, so it seems we’ll all have to wait a little longer to see how this pans out.

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Former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger, left, appeared with his attorney John Jackson in July at the beginning of his preliminary hearing on felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and failing to maintain control of a dangerous animal. A judge ruled that Geiger will face trial on all three counts in the deadly December 2016 dog attack. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

8. Former Grover Beach police officer faces felonies after his ex-police K9 kills neighbor

Though local officials were initially tight-lipped in the aftermath of a late 2016 dog mauling that killed Grover Beach resident David Fear and severely injured his neighbor, 86-year-old Betty Long, it was revealed that the owner of the dog was newly hired Grover Beach police Officer Alex Geiger.

Geiger, 26, had previously trained the animal in the city of Exeter, where the two were partners and where the dog bit a trainer, according to records obtained by The Tribune. Though the Grover Beach Police Department does not have a K9 unit, records show Geiger had lobbied Chief John Peters to start one in the few months he worked for the department. Other records and testimony in a July hearing showed that the dog had gotten out of Geiger’s backyard earlier in the day and chased a mailman.

Gieger faces felony charges of failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal and involuntary manslaughter and faces up to four years if convicted. He’s scheduled to go to trial in January.

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Baylee Gatlin, 20, died in May 2017 after attending the Lightning in a Bottle music festival in Monterey County. Her death was originally blamed on an LSD overdose by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's-Coroner's Office, but that finding was later changed. Courtesy photo

7. Coroner reverses ruling of LSD overdose death after experts said ‘It’s not possible’

A former SLO County medical examiner made the unusual finding that a 20-year-old woman died of LSD toxicity in May after attending the Lightning in a Bottle music festival at San Antonio Lake.

Problem was, medical experts told The Tribune that a deadly LSD overdose was extremely unlikely and unprecedented if true — the receptor that LSD interacts with is not involved in body life functions. The Sheriff’s Office stood by its expert’s conclusion.

A month later, that expert — Dr. Gary Walter — delivered a new report amending Baylee Gatlin’s cause of death as multi-organ failure, hyperthermia and dehydration, with other significant contributors including “possible LSD intoxication.”

6. Marijuana bans and rules take shape in a mostly wary SLO County

In preparation for the legalization of non-medical marijuana sales in 2018, most local decision-makers either banned the industry or opted for a slow roll-out in the first year. No city in the county created rules to allow retail storefront or delivery sales of recreational marijuana on Jan. 1.

Still, Grover Beach forged ahead of the pack to lay the groundwork for a cannabis business district, while the county Board of Supervisors wrote new land-use rules to allow everything from cultivation to delivery services in unincorporated areas of the county and created an enforcement plan to crack down on noncompliant operators, such as those in California Valley.

After years of doing business in a legal gray area with no local regulations, hundreds of medical marijuana distributors and growers (including the largest in the county) came out of the shadows to advocate, urge and shame leaders into supporting their industry.

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A wet winter brought years of drought to an end in 2017. In February, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency released water from Lake Nacimiento’s main spillway as part of its effort to maintain flood control for the reservoir. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

5. Rain, rain and more rain ends SLO County’s five-year drought

A storm-filled winter ended the drought that plagued San Luis Obispo County and other areas of the Central Coast and Southern California for about five years.

San Luis Obispo had its rainiest January in 20 years, with more than 11.5 inches measured at Cal Poly in that month alone, according to John Lindsey, a PG&E meteorologist. Every weather station monitored by the county’s Public Works Department had either met or exceeded rainfall averages by the time the rain season ended in June.

As a result of the continued rain, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the state’s drought emergency in April. County communities slowly began to follow suit and discontinued the water restrictions imposed on residents.

All that rain also filled the county’s reservoirs, a few of which were less than a quarter full before the storms began.

In the North County, Santa Margarita Lake spilled over for the first time in six years, and the Salinas River flowed — a sight residents hadn’t seen since 2013.

The rainy weather also toppled trees and caused flooding — a couple’s home nearly fell into Atascadero Creek in February.

So far, the county has had a very dry winter, leaving many wondering whether drought conditions are preparing to make a comeback.

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4. SLO County mourns SLOStringer Matthew Frank

San Luis Obispo County residents were stunned and saddened by the sudden death of Matthew Frank, also known as SLOStringer, an anonymous figure who chased police and fire emergencies throughout the region.

Thousands of followers relied on Frank’s SLOStringer social media posts for information on incidents throughout the county, along with on-scene photos and videos.

Frank died March 21 after his 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe went off the road and crashed into a tree while he was on his way to an early-morning house fire in Atsacadero.

His death prompted an outpouring of grief from community members who followed his posts.

Frank’s family held a public memorial service and barbecue in San Luis Obispo, where first responders honored him as one of their own. Later in the year, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham even sponsored a bill to name a stretch of Highway 101 after Frank.

Most recently, “Shot in the Dark,” a Netflix original series on three rival stringers, featured Frank’s memorial service in the show.

It’s clear Frank’s dedication to informing his community and sharing first responders’ work won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

3. Storms lead to two massive mudslides, bridge failure along scenic Highway 1

Business and tourism along Highway 1 north of San Simeon slid downhill after more than 4 million tons of dirt and rock buried the scenic coastal road May 20 at Mud Creek.

Heavy winter rains saturated the earth, creating conditions that led to the slide. And, as if that weren’t enough, a second big slide (Paul’s Slide) closed the road again to the north, leaving a 13-mile segment of road accessible only via a long inland detour. The Big Sur area, meanwhile, faced a challenge of its own when one of the columns supporting Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge started to give way, causing the road to heave and buckle.

The bridge failure, which cut Big Sur in half, and Paul’s Slide both required major efforts. Still, traffic resumed at Paul’s Slide in mid-July, and the bridge — which had to be demolished — was rebuilt from the ground up, opening anew in October.

Mud Creek presented a whole different kind of challenge: The slide was so massive it created a new peninsula where the coastline met the Pacific. Caltrans workers couldn’t dig down to the buried highway, which was destroyed anyway, so they decided to rebuild the road over the top of the slide. The plan, announced in September, placed the cost of the project at $40 million and put the target date for completion at late summer of 2018.

Until then, motorists will face the prospect of using Highway 101 to get from San Luis Obispo to Monterey, and businesses will face a continued drop in the tourism trade along what many consider to be California’s most beautiful highway.

2. SLO County pays $5 million settlement after deadly year for inmates at the County Jail

Three inmates died this year at the San Luis Obispo County Jail, more than double the most recent national average. In turn, residents let officials know that’s not acceptable, and the county promised a host of reforms.

After an autopsy report revealed that jail staff had restrained inmate Andrew Holland in a plastic chair for 46 straight hours before his death in January, the county announced in July it would pay Holland’s family $5 million before the family even sought damages. Since Holland’s death, two more inmates have died, including Russell Hammer, who the Sheriff’s Office says lost consciousness while being wheeled into the jail’s medical unit. Sheriff Ian Parkinson has faced calls for his resignation, and Jeff Hamm, the county’s Health Agency administrator, announced he would resign in April.

The county claims that correctional and mental health staff are overburdened at the jail and local psychiatric facility and have changed several policies — including banning the restraint chair — aimed to better treat the inmates and patients. Local families say different.

Meanwhile, the FBI formally kicked off a civil rights investigation into the SLO County Jail in May. That investigation remains ongoing.

1. Fires, fires everywhere

It’s been a busy year for fires on the Central Coast. The season started off with the Hill and Alamo fires and ended with the largest wildfire in California history.

The Hill Fire swept through Santa Margarita in late June, ultimately burning about 1,600 acres of land and destroying multiple structures, including the home of “Big Bang Theory” star Johnny Galecki. The blaze was caused by a vehicle fire that spread to nearby vegetation, according to Cal Fire.

The Alamo Fire in early July was at one point the largest wildfire burning in California during a summer full of fires all over the state. The fire east of Santa Maria ultimately burned about 29,000 acres but destroyed just one residence and damaged one structure. Firefighters were battling the Alamo Fire at the same time as the Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County, and that was just on the Central Coast. During that time, 5,000 firefighters were battling 14 wildfires statewide.

And, at the very end of the year, a fast-burning blaze in Ventura County quickly surpassed the 2003 Cedar Fire in acreage to become the largest wildfire in California history — the Thomas Fire. It began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College and spread quickly thanks to strong winds, threatening the communities of Santa Paula, Ojai and Ventura before jumping Highway 101, marching west and threatening Montecito, Carpinteria and Santa Barbara. Over a period of weeks, the fire forced evacuations throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The blaze, which is expected to reach full containment in the new year, has burned 281,893 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

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