Sonoma County’s biggest stories of 2010-2019 include wildfires, housing, climate change, homelessness

Interactive timeline of the decade

Which news events do you remember from the last 10 years? Check out our interactive timeline for a

walk down memory lane here:

The biggest single news event in Sonoma County during the past decade roared into Santa Rosa through Mark West Creek canyon during the dead of night in October of 2017, incinerating three neighborhoods and sending terrified residents fleeing their homes with what little they could grab, as frantic first responders pounded on doors and yelled at people to get out.

Other major stories emerged slowly, with a broad failure to build affordable housing over the decade sending home prices soaring, squeezing out working-class residents and deepening a homelessness crisis manifested by the current massive encampment in west Santa Rosa.

The top news stories from the past 10 years include the launch of a regional rail agency, a fledgling legal cannabis industry taking flight and the construction of an $800 million casino and resort in Rohnert Park, as well as Sonoma County's Latino community expanding its role in the region's civic and business life.

Many of the most significant stories are likely to serve as harbingers for the decades to come. The housing and homelessness crises have yet to be solved, and the wildfires, drought and flooding of the past decade are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the planet heats up.

Here are the top 10 news stories from 2010 to 2019, as decided by Press Democrat editors and staff members.

1. Wildfires

The fireball that roared across all six lanes of Highway 101 in Santa Rosa about 3 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2017, signaled that everything had changed for Sonoma County residents.

AJ LeBaron, driving south from his former home in Larkfield, saw the wind hurl a mass of flaming tree branches across the freeway north of Hopper Avenue. “Boom, it was there,” he recalled, as a wall of fire erupted in his path,

“I was stunned. I just slammed on my brakes,” said LeBaron, now a resident of Mobile, Alabama.

Two years later, when Cal Fire's incident management team warned that the Kincade fire might cross Highway 101, roar down River Road and burn all the way to Bodega Bay, Sheriff Mark Essick had no cause for doubt. He expanded a mandatory evacuation on Oct. 27 to the entire west county, requiring nearly 190,000 people - more than a third of the county's population - to get out of harm's way.

“I look at October 2017 and I still get emotional about this because I was there,” Essick said. “We lost 24 lives.”

Sonoma County's psyche remains scarred by the death and destruction from wildfires wrought by climate change and corporate practices that public officials have characterized as negligence. The 2017 firestorm destroyed more than 5,300 homes, compounding the county's housing shortage and homelessness crisis, while the Kincade fire took another 374 ?homes and scorched a record 77,758 acres.

Pacific Gas & Electric, driven into bankruptcy by billions of dollars in liabilities for wildfires linked to its equipment, faces an uncertain future, and Californians confront the peril of increasingly long, hot fire seasons.

The fearsome trend, which hit Lake County in 2015, now totals 23,781 wildfires consuming 3.8 ?million acres statewide since 2017.

But there are upsides to the story.

The lack of preparation and bungled response to the 2017 firestorm led to robust improvements to wireless emergency alerts, a network of fire-monitoring wildland cameras and other preparedness measures that helped the region better respond to the 2019 Kincade fire, the largest in Sonoma County history.

Since 2017, Sonoma County has rebuilt 1,176 homes, with 1,869 more under construction and permits pending or issued for 478. The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, raised $32 million to assist fire victims.

What's more, the disasters deepened community bonds. The Sonoma Strong movement saw residents unite in Hidden Valley, Coffey Park, Larkfield Estates and other neighborhoods.

2. Housing crunch

Sonoma County's housing shortage escalated through the decade, exacerbated by wildfire losses as the median price for a single-family home rebounded mightily from the recession, going from $305,000 in 2009 to a record above $700,000 ?in 2018.

The price dipped to $660,000 in October, but homeownership remains beyond the reach of the vast majority of county households, and 39 percent of households face a “housing burden,” defined as spending 30 percent or more of their monthly income on mortgage payments. More than half of renters face the same challenge.

Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, summed up the county's lingering dilemma bluntly: “More demand than supply. It's that simple.”

Interactive timeline of the decade

Which news events do you remember from the last 10 years? Check out our interactive timeline for a

walk down memory lane here:

From 2009 to 2016, builders added just 6,300 housing units in the county, a period in which the local economy added 31,000 ?jobs. It was just a fraction of the nearly 18,000 homes built in the previous eight years, and the lack of inventory has created a seller's market, relentlessly pushing up prices.

The 2017 wildfires destroyed about 5% of Santa Rosa's total housing stock.

County officials last year calculated the gap between the county housing supply before the fires - about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units - and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.

It came to about 30,000 units, the equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol, prompting supervisors to set a five-year goal of building 6,000 houses and apartments a year, completing an average of 16 homes a day.

Builders are likely to fall “woefully short” of the goal for reasons out of their control, including insufficient supplies of labor and materials as well as projects ready to go that have cleared all approvals.

Meanwhile, employers in both the public and private sectors have reported difficulty hiring workers from out of the area because of the high cost of housing.

3. Climate change

A drought that lasted years, flooding on the Russian River and wildfires rampaging throughout the North Coast made the global reckoning with climate change all the more local and personal.

Sonoma County endured the state's most destructive fire at the time in 2017 and Mendocino and Lake counties were home to the largest wildfire a year later, punctuating a scary trend that leading authorities say is driven by climate change.

“Climate change is a core driver of heightened wildfire risk,” said a report by Gov. Gavin Newsom's strike force in April. Warming temperatures, faster-shrinking snowpacks and longer droughts are all factors.

The result, according to Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, are fire seasons that start earlier and end later each year.

California experienced nearly 24,000 wildfires that scorched about 3.8 million acres - an area larger than Sonoma and Mendocino counties combined - in the past three years.

Atmospheric rivers, which deliver close to half of Sonoma County's drinking water, also cause the worst floods when they hit too frequently or too close together.

Sonoma County was identified as the epicenter of such megastorms among western states, with more than $5 billion in damage over 40 years ending in 2017.

Jay Jaspers, chief engineer at Sonoma Water, said some forecasts envision such storms will intensify with climate change. “It's not just today's problem. It's tomorrow's problem consistently,” he said.

Meanwhile, scientists at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory have long studied a variety of impacts related to climate change, including increasing ocean acidification and the collapse of the North Coast's kelp forests - environmental fallout that has closed the region's beloved abalone fishery for at least two years.

4. Homelessness persists

The ragtag row of tents and tarps sheltering more than 200 people along the Joe Rodota Trail next to Highway 12 west of Santa Rosa brought Sonoma County's homeless crisis into inescapable focus, prompting the Board of Supervisors to approve earlier this month an $11.6 million plan to address what had become labeled a public health emergency.

Three supervisors expressed qualms about the cost of an effort so focused on a small segment of the homeless population, while homeless advocate Miles Sarvis said: “It's freezing outside. So let's get on it. Let's do it.”

But the standoff looks likely to drag on amid even short-term fixes that will take months to implement.

Homeless surveys throughout the decade show the latest count - 2,951 unsheltered adults and children in the county - is down slightly from last year and 35% below the 2011 peak of 4,539 ?people attributed to the recession.

“We are housing more people than we ever have before,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities, which operates the county's largest homeless shelter. “But more people are falling into homelessness than before.”

Some 650 formerly homeless people were housed last year, compared with about 200 in 2014, she said.

Homelessness became more visible in 2015, when SMART commuter trains began tests along the railroad tracks, displacing hundreds of people who had been living there, out of sight and undisturbed, for two decades, Holmes said.

The city engaged in what some called a “whack a mole” approach, displacing homeless people from numerous sites, including downtown freeway underpasses, the Sebastopol Road Dollar Tree, so-called Homeless Hill off Bennett Valley Road and Corporate Center Parkway.

High housing costs remain the leading cause of homelessness throughout the state and a major obstacle to reducing it. Likewise, mental health and substance abuse remain both key symptoms and causes of homelessness.

Programs aimed at reducing homelessness include the Palms Inn, a motel converted to house homeless veterans, tiny homes at Veterans Village and safe parking sites.

5. Andy Lopez

The violent death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy, shot by a sheriff's deputy in 2013, was arguably the county's most traumatic incident early in the past decade - a local case of the all-too-frequently deadly encounters seen in recent years between law enforcement and children or young men of color.

On an October afternoon, Lopez was carrying a plastic BB gun made to look like a lethal AK-47 rifle when he was shot and killed by Deputy Erick Gelhaus on a sidewalk near his home on the outskirts of southwest Santa Rosa.

Weeks of protests followed, along with sharp political debate and a civil rights lawsuit that ended with a $3 million payment to Lopez's parents.

Gelhaus, an Iraq War veteran and firearms instructor with the Sheriff's Office, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by District Attorney Jill Ravitch and later promoted to sergeant. He retired this year.

Then-Sheriff Steve Freitas, faulted for failing to engage with the Latino community after the shooting, retired in 2017 shortly after saying he would not seek reelection the following year.

Lopez's death set in motion a yearslong push to increase transparency and oversight of police officers' use of force and rebuild trust with communities they serve. The county created an independent agency that now reviews Sheriff's Office policies and internal investigations, though that office's leaders have said a lack of funding has led to their work becoming backlogged.

In June 2018, Lopez's neighborhood off South Moorland Avenue welcomed the opening of a $3.7 million county park at the vacant lot where he died. Andy's Unity Park features play and picnic space and a memorial garden featuring a bronze-relief likeness of the teen.

6. Transportation

Miles of new freeway lanes and the arrival of a commuter train sought to ease travel along the Highway 101 corridor over the past decade - thought it will be several more years before the entire Novato Narrows bottleneck is cleared.

The $1.2 billion highway-widening project, started in 2001 and stretching from Windsor to Novato, saw the completion this decade of segments north and south of Petaluma, with a final 3.3-mile section through the city set to be finished at the end of 2022.

Marin County officials are pursuing funding to eliminate the last bottleneck, between the county line and Novato, in hopes of completing that segment at the end of 2023.

The new lanes, open to vehicles with two or more occupants during commute hours, encourage people to carpool and reduce traffic on the North Bay's key artery, which has been jammed for years.

Meanwhile, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit started rolling green and gray diesel-powered trains along an initial 43-mile line from a station near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to San Rafael in 2017, giving the public an alternative to the highway.

The trains have carried more than 1.6 million riders, and the Dec. 14 opening of a 2-mile extension to Larkspur, with a connection to the Golden Gate Ferry, is expected to boost ridership.

“I've been waiting for it for about 30 years,” said Stan Gow, 67, of Santa Rosa, who uses a motorized wheelchair. “Sometimes I just go for a train ride to get out and just turn my head.”

SMART plans to reach 3 miles farther north to Windsor by the end of 2021, but has no schedule to go from there to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, the northern terminus of the 70-mile project pitched to voters in 2008 but curtailed by revenue shortfalls.

SMART is going back to voters in March seeking a 30-year renewal of its quarter-cent sales tax, which is set to expire in 2029. In addition, Sonoma County's transportation agency is considering a proposed extension of its quarter-cent sales tax to fund various improvements on the November ballot.

7. Latino rise

Seven Latino community members, concerned about the disconnect from Sonoma County's largely white establishment, met for lunch in a back room at Mary's Pizza Shack in downtown Santa Rosa in October 2009.

It was the birth of Los Cien, a Latino leadership group whose meetings came to include elected officials, top law enforcement officers and others, with discussions aimed at building bridges and addressing perceptions and misconceptions between cultures.

Today, Los Cien counts about 150 paying members and a database with more than 1,700 names. The group holds seven lunches a year that draw 150 to 300 people to the Flamingo Hotel, and Los Cien's sixth annual State of the Latino Community in Sonoma County symposium in September packed about 650 ?people into a ballroom at Sonoma State University.

“Everything kicked in at the right time,” said Herman Hernandez, a Guerneville real estate broker who is founder and chairman of Los Cien, calling the past 10 years a “transformative decade” for the county's Latinos

“Today we are at the table and not on the menu,” he said.

For decades a force in farm labor and other local industries, Latino community members have wider recognition in business and government leadership, with a growing number of elected offices and top jobs held by residents of Latino heritage. In September, Rainer Navarro became Santa Rosa's first Latino chief of police.

Demographics drove much of the change.

Latinos accounted for 10% of the county's population in 1990 and are now at 26%, according to a Sonoma County Economic Development Board report. White people still are the majority at 64%, but the Hispanic population, growing 2.5 times faster than the general population, is expected to make up 40% of the population by 2060.

In 2018-19, Latino youths were 46% of the school population, and white students were 42%.

Latino purchasing power has grown as well, with $2 billion in aggregate household income, the EDB report said.

For all the gains, Los Cien has identified gaps between whites and Latinos in median household income, education, homeownership, health and living in good neighborhoods.

Latinos still face barriers to a better quality of life, said activist George Ortiz, who came to the county as a social worker in 1964.

“As much as things have changed, they haven't,” he said. “We're the grunts of this community. We're not the CPAs or the attorneys.”

The growing number of Latino professionals, however, show that is changing.

8. Cannabis

Pot prohibition went up in smoke on Nov. 8, 2016, when nearly 8 million California voters made recreational use of marijuana legal, immediately guaranteeing people 21 and up the right to possess an ounce of weed and grow six plants.

It also signaled the start of a “green rush” of investment into an industry said to be worth billions of dollars, with a hub in Sonoma County at the gateway to the famed Emerald Triangle.

But while 59% of Sonoma County voters favored legalization, a substantial plurality - 46% - of respondents to a Press Democrat poll in 2018 said they didn't want cannabis cultivation near the homes.

That dichotomy held up through the fitful process of setting standards for commercial cannabis in cities and counties here and around the state, starting in 2018.

Barraged by protests from rural residents, Sonoma County supervisors restricted most pot-growing farms to properties of at least 10 acres, displacing about 2,000 local growers who were raising small crops of about 25 plants.

Santa Rosa got off to a slow start but has since warmed to pot businesses that handed over about $930,000 in tax revenues over a three-year period. Sonoma County streamlined the permit process for cultivators by shifting it from the building department to the agriculture division.

When the county crop report came out in August, Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar said he was not including cannabis in the $1.1 billion value but dropped a bit of bombshell by saying his staff had estimated the harvest value from 15 authorized acres of marijuana at $95 million.

That works out to about $6 million per acre, dwarfing the almost $13,000-per-acre value of county's vaunted wine grapes.

“It's astounding,” Linegar said, calling the estimate conservative.

9. New attractions in Rohnert Park

Rohnert Park secured two attractions in the past decade that put Sonoma County's third-largest city on the map for thousands of music aficionados and folks with a yen for gambling.

The $120 million Green Music Center, including a 1,400-seat concert hall built to compare with the famed Tanglewood venue in the hills of western Massachusetts, opened in 2012 on the Sonoma State University campus at the eastern edge of Rohnert Park.

The $800 million Graton Resort and Casino, a glass, stone and wood structure designed with Las Vegas-style glitz, opened the following year just outside the city's western boundary.

“This is Godzilla,” a tribal gaming law attorney declared, admiring the gaming hall developed by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which secured rights from Congress to build the casino off Highway 101 - the largest full-scale casino in the greater Bay Area.

Years earlier, a $10 million gift from Don Green, a Telecom Valley pioneer, kicked off the music center project, built with $62 ?million in donations and about $45 million from taxpayers.

Sandy Weill, the former chief executive of Citigroup and Sonoma retiree, together with his wife, Joan, donated $12 million to complete the music center, proclaiming it would give Sonoma County a “terrific” economic boost and a “world-class cultural destination.”

Weill is part owner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Both projects drew heavy opposition. SSU faculty said the music center diverted funds from the school's academic mission, while casino critics said it would bring traffic and crime to Rohnert Park.

The casino added a $175 million 200-room hotel and convention center in 2016 and draws about 10 million patrons a year.

10. Efren Carrillo

Efren Carrillo's remarkable political rise began with his election in 2008 to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors at age 27, the first Latino elected to countywide office and the second-youngest person in the county ever to hold a supervisor's seat. The outgoing son of Mexican immigrants handily won reelection in 2012, and had secured a statewide leadership post among county officials while gaining attention from California's Democratic Party leaders when his abrupt fall came in 2013 with a shocking arrest.

Carrillo was wearing nothing but socks and underwear when Santa Rosa police arrested him in his apartment complex in the predawn darkness on suspicion of burglary and prowling.

A female neighbor had called 911 to report that someone had attempted to enter her apartment through her bedroom window. Police found the screen torn enough to allow someone to reach through.

“I'm embarrassed by my behavior,” Carrillo said after his trial and acquittal the following year on attempted peeking. He blamed alcohol abuse and an oversized ego, testifying that he knocked on the woman's door and bedroom window - tearing the screen in the process - in an attempt to have a drink and sex with the woman, whom he barely knew.

“He terrorized her,” the woman's attorney said. “This will stay with her for a very long time.”

Carrillo, who also had been arrested in a 2012 street fight on Labor Day in San Diego, endured an epic public shaming in the board chambers, with constituents and fellow board members demanding his resignation, including then-Supervisor Mike McGuire, who later that year was elected to the state Senate - a seat once considered within Carrillo's reach.

“I have no intentions to resign,” Carrillo said. “Those who demand that I give (up) the office, to which the voters of the 5th District elected me, will be disappointed.”

But his political career had been tarnished if not irrevocably upended.

He served a productive year as board chairman in 2016 and announced that he would not seek reelection, opening up the path for another young political newcomer, Lynda Hopkins. The organic farmer and Stanford grad won the 5th District race over former state Sen. Noreen Evans, giving the board its first female majority along with Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin.

Carrillo, who had not ruled out a return to public service, works for Burbank Housing, the nonprofit developer, and is board president for the Center for Climate Protection, a Santa Rosa nonprofit.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the organization former Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo now works for. Carrillo works for Burbank Housing, a Santa Rosa nonprofit, not Luther Burbank Housing.

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