The year 2017 opened with the quiet conviction that it could not possibly be worse than 2016 – rock icons passed away, a housing crisis roiled neighborhoods, and a locally-unpopular candidate was elected president. But true to form, 2017 proved to be even more disquieting, capped by a once-in-a-generation calamity that turned Sonoma Valley into a disaster zone.
1: Without doubt, the October Fires were the news of the year throughout Sonoma County. For 10 days the flames consumed homes and parklands, filling the air with toxic smoke that could be seen from space. It burned 110,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, destroyed or damaged almost 7,500 structures (about 400 homes in the Valley) and cost 40 lives.
But it also brought forth a powerful community spirit, tagged #SonomaStrong. Neighbors rescued neighbors and their pets even as the fires bore down on the communities of Glen Ellen and the areas surrounding Sonoma, and volunteers took up the slack in fighting the fires and helping in the recovery. It’s an ongoing story, one whose effects will be felt for years to come.
2: If the firestorm grabbed all the headlines in October, the year opened with a storm of protests over president Trump’s inauguration, policies and public statements. A pro-Trump rally was held in Sonoma on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, but from that point on the Plaza became a gathering ground for dissent. Jan. 21 found a “sister march” to the National Women’s March on Washington, with an estimate 3,000 demonstrators crowding the Plaza with signs, chants and a desperate form of jubilation.
On Feb. 17, a smaller rally gathered to recognize Day Without Immigrants and a Strike for Democracy; on April 29 a People’s Climate March gathered to support environmental protection. But as the year wore on, the protests became fewer and thinner, and by July the Plaza was the scene of just another Fourth, with parade, hot dogs, beer and fireworks.
3: Crime was another recurring theme in Sonoma this past year, with bank robberies making a comeback into the headlines. In July, a man acting alone without a gun requested and got a sackful of cash from the Rabobank on First Street West; he turned himself in three days later. On Sept. 9, a Napa couple found their crime spree cut short two blocks from the Wells Fargo on West Napa Street, as their getaway pickup was surrounded and they were arrested. Two weeks later another lone robber hit the Umpqua Bank, again on West Napa; so far, he has not been caught.
4: The biggest local bank crime of all, though, came to a bittersweet conclusion only in December, with guilty verdicts for the three men accused of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in the Sonoma Valley Bank case. Among them was bank president Sean Cutting, still looked upon favorably by many Sonomans despite the guilty verdict. Not among them was Bijan Madjlessi, the developer who pushed the bank over the edge: He died in a car crash in 2011, just weeks after being indicted.
5: Car crashes, unfortunately, took a local toll throughout the year. A 22-year-old Sonoma man, Nicolas Olascoaga, died in a single-car accident on Highway 12 and Dunbar Road in July. In November, 38-year-old Karen Quackenbush was killed in a head-on collision on nearby Lakeville Highway – the second fatal accident on Lakeville Highway that month. In December a midnight hit-and-run took the life of a 51-year-old transient, Theodore Erkson, on Highway 12 near Kenwood.
Top Story Links
The October Fires (category page with multiple stories)