MODESTO — In just a few hours, Father Time will call it quits on 2013.
The news business is never dull, and this year it offered up no shortage of surprises and stunners. But by objective standards, 2013 will go into the history books as a blue collar news year. There was no single news event that transfixed the globe. It was short on glitz but long on substance.
Nationally, the Associated Press the worlds largest news organization compiles a list of top stories as voted on by editors across the country. Leading the APs 2013 list is the flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare. The Boston Marathon bombing, the changes in the Roman Catholic Church, the divided Congress and the NSA/Edward Snowden spying revelations round out the top five.
But The Bee is all about local news. And while local stories might not be as sexy as whats happening in Washington, Los Angeles or New York, what happens here has an outsized impact on our daily lives.
I asked The Bees newsroom staff the people who cover this community every day to compile a list of Top 10 local stories. This task proved to be difficult this year. Outside of the top spot, there was little consensus on how to rank the following nine entries.
So after much discussion and reflection, heres our Top 10:
1. THE RIM FIRE
Everything about the Rim fire was huge, and it was the clear choice of Bee editors as the top local story of 2013. The massive wildfire scorched 257,314 acres spanning Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, making it the biggest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada. It started when a hunter lost control of a campfire on Aug. 17, authorities said, and grew steadily, aided by a continuing drought and ideal wildfire weather conditions. Tourism a major economic engine for the area was heavily affected. Highway 120 was closed for weeks. More than 5,000 firefighters converged on the blaze, which was contained on Oct. 24. The fire also seared itself into the national consciousness with countless national media reports.
2. LOCAL ELECTION RESULTS
There was nothing sexy about this story. Voter turnout in the November election was 23 percent. But theres no doubt that what happened will leave a lasting mark on Modesto. Measure X a 1 percent sales-tax increase proposal was heavily supported by the citys police and fire unions but drew opposition from residents who felt the city had mismanaged its affairs. It failed to pass with a simple majority. The City Council also gained three new faces: District 5 incumbent Stephanie Burnside was defeated by Jenny Kenoyer, and Tony Madrigal and Bill Zoslocki won election in districts that had no incumbent on the ballot.
The Modesto Irrigation District board got an infusion of new blood unlike anything seen in the past few decades. John Mensinger, Jake Wenger and Paul Campbell are all new to the board, while Nick Blom and Larry Byrd have been members only since 2011. That means the combined experience of everyone on the board is four years. And theyre all working with a new general manager in Roger Van Hoy. The district faces some of its most difficult problems of a generation relicensing of Don Pedro Dam, a more equitable rate structure for residents and what could be a shortage of water in the coming months.
3. GROUNDWATER ISSUES
Food grows where water flows. And in the middle of a crippling drought, local farmers are sucking more and more of it from underground aquifers. Nearly 300 well permits were issued in Stanislaus County this year about twice the number of recent years. And nearly half of those permits were for massive industrial irrigation pumps of a width of 16 inches or more. In Merced County, so much water has been pulled from the ground that the land is sinking. The issue surely will continue to be top-of-mind in 2014, with Stanislaus County forming a Water Advisory Committee and potential state intervention on the horizon.
4. ALMONDS RISE TO PROMINENCE IN COUNTY AGRICULTURE
Almonds have been dubbed a dream crop by farmers relatively simple to grow, with mechanized harvesting and global demand pushing profits into the stratosphere. Stanislaus Countys output of the valuable and nutritious nut promised to hit record levels in 2013 on the heels of $786.9 million in sales in 2012, the latest available sales data. For the first time, almonds edged out dairy as the countys most valuable crop, with 1,223 almond growers farming 1,600 orchards producing a combined 338 million pounds of almond meat. High demand in India, China and Europe figure to drive almond prices even higher in future years.
5. FOSTER FARMS SALMONELLA OUTBREAK
The year wasnt kind to Foster Farms. The Livingston-based poultry processor the largest producer of fresh chicken in the western U.S. was rocked by an outbreak of salmonella illnesses that sickened more than 300 people across the nation. The outbreak hurt us to the core, CEO Ron Foster said, and tarnished the companys sterling reputation for quality. Sales initially dipped 25 percent, but improved after the company worked to win back customers by implementing safety measures that exceeded federal guidelines.
The incident touched off a national discussion about the prevalence of salmonella in fresh chicken products and proper home kitchen safety and cooking procedures. The company did not recall any chicken, and regulators insisted all chicken shipped was safe if properly handled and cooked.
6. PETTIT HOMICIDES PROSECUTORS SAY PARENTS KILLED BY SON
The shocking August deaths of Scott and Janet Pettit in a north Modesto house fire turned even more tragic when the couples son Brandon, 25, was arrested on suspicion of murder, arson and conspiracy in their deaths. Prosecutors allege that Brandon Pettit and Felix Valverde committed the murders for financial gain. Both have pleaded not guilty. Investigators have said they believe the fire at the Divan Court home was started to cover up the murders and have confirmed that the victims were dead before the fire started.
7. 12-YEAR-OLD VALLEY SPRINGS BOY CHARGED IN FATAL STABBING OF 8-YEAR-OLD SISTER
An extensive manhunt for the killer of Leila Fowler, an 8-year-old Valley Springs girl, resulted in the May 11 arrest of her 12-year-old brother. The story drew considerable attention from national morning-news shows. The boy has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
8. TYLOR CRIPPEN STABBED TO DEATH IN EAST MODESTO PARK
A January walk in the park for 18-year-old Tylor Crippen turned into a heartbreaking tragedy. Crippen, who was on a stroll in Creekwood Park with his girlfriend, was robbed and stabbed to death. Taylor Koplen, 18, Jacob Segura, 19, and Juan Garcia, 16, are charged with Crippens murder. A Modesto police detective said that the three defendants are members of a Modesto street gang. The homicide shocked the city, as Crippen had no gang affiliation and was purely an innocent victim, according to police.
9. ROBERT MCHENRYS RUSE: HE REALLY WAS A BREWSTER
The name McHenry is synonymous with Modesto but should it really be Brewster? McHenry Museum researcher Janet Lancaster found that Robert Henry Brewster had deserted the Army in 1847 and headed west under the new name of Robert McHenry. Lancaster painstakingly investigated McHenrys (or should I say Brewsters?) background and confirmed it through DNA matches and the family secret was out.
10. GEORGE LUCAS RETURNS TO MODESTO FOR GRAFFITI PARADE
Modesto native and noted filmmaker George Lucas made his first public appearance in his hometown in 40 years as grand marshal of the North Modesto Kiwanis American Graffiti Classic Car Parade. Lucas appearance coincided with the 40th anniversary of his highly successful film, American Graffiti, which celebrated the Modesto cruising culture.
ON THE CUSP OF THE LOCAL TOP 10
The local economy improves slightly; Turlock native Colin Kaepernick leads the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl; the Berryhill brothers face charges regarding campaign financing; controversy surrounding the location of the proposed new Stanislaus County Courthouse; and the sentencing of former Enochs High School Teacher James Hooker. All of these stories are deserving and could have made it into the Top 10. It was a tough call this year.
As is always the case, the Top 10 list created by Bee editors does not line up with the Top 10 list of most-read stories at modbee.com. Crime and accident coverage are candy to readers, but these stories dont necessarily rank highly in overall importance.
So what will 2014 have in store for us? Your guess is as good as mine. But I know there will be no shortage of twists and turns, with water issues and county elections on the horizon. Through it all, The Bee will be here to make sense of it all for you, our valued readers.
We thank you for reading The Bee and modbee.com and wish you a happy and prosperous 2014.