USA: 2004 At home and on the national stage

2004 At home and on the national stage

25December 2004

BySusan Voyles and Jeff DeLong, RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

A raging wildfire in July threatened Nevada’s capital, burning 17 homes and stopping a few ridges short of the mountain rimming Lake Tahoe.

The Waterfall Fire near Carson City and the Andrew Fire near Reno that burned six homes combined to produce Northern Nevada’s most devastating fire season in modern history.

Meanwhile, a red-hot presidential campaign brought movie stars and candidates to Northern Nevada as they fought for each vote in the political battleground state.

The fiery campaign and the disastrous fire season are the top two stories for 2004 in Northern Nevada as chosen by the Reno Gazette-Journal staffers.

Others on the Top 10 list include the impeachment of Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine, Harry Reid’s rise to minority leader of the U.S. Senate, the booming real estate market and the Nevada Wolf Pack’s Sweet 16 basketball team.

In his 35 years in the anchor chair at television station KOLO Channel 8, journalist Tad Dunbar said 2004 definitely produced more stand-out stories than most years. And, he said, the year was unprecedented for putting Northern Nevada in the national spotlight.

“The presidential election is almost unique because the state has never received that kind of national attention before,” he said.

Here comes Bush, Kerry and the gang

Northern Nevadans didn’t have to watch TV or read the newspapers to follow the presidential campaign this year. They could go see it for themselves.

More than 16,000 people in October gathered to hear President Bush at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in his last of two visits to Reno. He also spoke at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in June.

Just 12 days before the election, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry came to Reno, drawing a crowd of 12,000. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect Democrats to fill Lawlor Events Center,” said Chris Healy, 48, a Kerry supporter.

Earlier in October, “Fahrenheit 9/11” film producer Michael Moore packed the same house. A huge debate among University of Nevada, Reno supporters and students over whether he should be allowed on campus preceded his appearance.

Hundreds of protesters stood outside the gates of each major campaign appearance, drawing hordes of young people and baby boomers. Those weren’t the only political appearances. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke here three times. Teresa Heinz Kerry visited Reno’s community center on Neil Road. Elizabeth Edwards campaigned in Carson City and Elko while Laura Bush met with supporters at Lake Tahoe.

Throughout the campaign, Northern Nevada residents also were bombarded with mail, television ads and survey phone calls about the presidential race.

Officials estimate that viewers were on the receiving end of a record $7 million-$8 million worth of TV ads. In July, more presidential ads were running in Reno than anywhere else in the country.

As it turned out, polls showed moral values as a key factor in voters giving Bush another four years Nov. 2. Voters who turned out for the president in Nevada’s rural areas pushed him over the top in the state.

Destructive fires

Before dawn on July 14, fire crews in Carson City responded to reports of a small brush fire burning in the hills near Kings Canyon.

In a matter of hours, a firestorm raged in the first of two major summer wildfires in the Reno-Carson area. They rocketed out of control, torching homes, trapping firefighters and sending a cloud of smoke towering into the sky.

The Waterfall Fire in Carson City destroyed 17 homes and a business over the course of two days. The blaze ultimately charred nearly 9,000 acres west of the capital city, nearly burning into the Lake Tahoe Basin.

A month later, a man target shooting in the hills north of Washoe Lake sparked the region’s next major fire. Pushed by high wind, the Andrew Fire consumed another 2,700 acres, destroying six homes off Andrew Lane and in the Toll Road area.

Combined with another small but destructive brush fire that burned four homes in north Reno in late July, the 2004 fire season saw 27 homes destroyed by wildfire. That’s an unprecedented level of destruction for the area in modern history, said Marty Scheuerman, Reno deputy fire chief.

Mike Dondero, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest fire management officer, said trees and brush dried from five years of drought combined with dangerous weather conditions to produce explosive conditions.

“I think everything just added up for an extreme season,” Dondero said. “No matter where the fires started, they were going to burn very violently.”

Fire officials said it was fortunate no one died and that hundreds of homes weren’t lost. “It set a record, and we don’t want that kind of record,” Dondero said.

Harry who?

Something was up when actor Robert Redford came to town to campaign for Nevada Senator Harry Reid last December. With his help, Reid raised more than $8.5 million for his campaign, spreading $1 million of the wealth to other Senate Democrats.

Reid became minority leader two weeks after the November election when Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost in his seat.

Reid immediately popped up on “Meet the Press” the next Sunday and was the subject of Joe Klein’s column in Time magazine last month. Reid’s mild-mannered style and anti-abortion views have been highlighted by the national media.

Reid has his “quiet strengths” as former Republican Party chairman and Nevadan Frank Fahnenkopf Jr., put it.

“What the Republicans and White House will learn about Harry … is Harry will keep his word,” Fahrenkopf told Gannett News Service in late November.

While becoming a major player on the national stage, Reid, of Searchlight, also appears to be taking care of Nevada. In the giant appropriations bill approved in November, he and the rest of the Nevada delegation brought home $71 million in transportation money alone.

“We’ve had people on key committees before. But nobody has risen this high,” said Eric Herzik, a UNR political science professor and acting dean.

“More will be brought home,” Herzik said.

On the Republican side, Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval accepted Reid’s offer in November to be recommended for a lifetime job as a federal judge. Nevada’s rising star in state politics was given a prime-time television spot for his speech before the Republican National Convention, and he rode with President Bush in his limousine during a Reno visit.

Augustine keeps her job

At the statehouse in Carson City, Controller Augustine was allowed to live another day in office when the Nevada Senate returned her to the job with a formal reprimand after being impeached by the Assembly.

The Senate voted 14-7 on Dec. 4 to convict her on one of three impeachment charges and dismissed two others. It voted 20-2 to censure her.

Augustine left the chambers, saying she had been vindicated and would consider running for office again.

She was the first state officer impeached in Nevada’s 140-year history and convicted of using state office equipment for her re-election campaign. The Senate dismissed a charge that she forced two employees in her office to work on her campaign.

In the trial, testimony showed that Augustine held a jewelry sale in her office to benefit the campaign, employees set up “assembly lines” to stuff campaign envelopes and filmed a campaign commercial, using state employees.

Special prosecutor Dan Greco told the media the case should have been brought before a criminal jury trial. “Ordinary lay citizens would be much more amenable to condemning these charges than would elected officials.”

Through the roof, real estate prices

In Northern Nevada, Realtors say the high price of real estate should stabilize for a while and then grow at a more steady pace.

But homeowners had a wild ride the last two years as many Californians cashed out of their more expensive homes and bought one or more homes here.

As the summer-buying season ended, homes put on the market frequently sold on the same day, and buyers often offered more than the selling price. Purchasers camped out when new homes were put on the market or put their names in for a drawing.

At the end of September, the median sales price of a new home in Washoe County stood at $295,000 compared with $218,000 in September 2003 and $164,000 in 2002 — an increase of 65 percent over two years.

The median price is the point where half the sales occurred under that amount and half over.

In Southern Nevada, home sale prices have gone up even more.

State Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, has called for a freeze in property tax hikes due to increased property values for next year while the Legislature finds a way to curb property tax hikes while providing for state and local governments.

West Nile virus arrives

A crow that toppled off a tree and died in the yard of a Carson City home in July signaled the long-awaited arrival of the West Nile virus in Nevada.

By the time chilly fall weather brought an end to the mosquito season, 48 Nevada residents had become infected with the potentially deadly virus but none died, according to state health officials.

The virus — carried by birds and transmitted to humans, horses and other animals by the bite of an infected mosquito — was much harder on Nevada’s horse population.

West Nile infected 120 horses, and probably about a third of those died, said Dr. David Thain, Nevada state veterinarian. Some 150 dead birds tested positive for the virus.

“It hit a lot harder than we expected it to,” Thain said, particularly in parts of Churchill and Lyon counties.

Although those areas might not see the same level of West Nile activity in the summer of 2005, the virus is expected to continue its spread into other parts of the state, including Reno and Las Vegas, officials said.

A greater number of human cases generally occur the second year the virus is present, and older residents are urged to take particular care once mosquitoes start buzzing next spring, said Dr. Vicky Fogelman of the Nevada Division of Health.

Drought deepens

An unseasonably warm spring and the resulting rapid melt-off of the mountain snowpack helped lock Northern Nevada into its fifth straight year of drought in 2004.

For the first time in a decade, water suppliers in Reno-Sparks were forced to tap backup drought supplies in reservoirs early this fall.

At Lake Tahoe, the most popular boat-launching ramp on the Nevada side at Sand Harbor was left high and dry by mid-July. Boats were banging onto rocks as the lake level dropped throughout the summer, finally dipping below its natural rim and below the spillway into the Truckee River in September.

“I think everybody’s hurting, no question about it,” Lovelock farmer Alan List said of conditions that left many of his alfalfa fields fallow. Farmers statewide faced extreme drought conditions.

“There’s no question that the state, from Lake Tahoe in Northern Nevada to Lake Mead in Southern Nevada, is in the midst of a difficult drought,” Gov. Kenny Guinn said in July.

Strong storms in October brought a promising start to the 2004-2005 winter season. Experts, however, stress that a winter producing as much as 200 percent of normal precipitation may be needed to offset the impact of five dry years.

Sweet 16

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team nearly got the entire town howling when it advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in March.

The Reno Hilton glowed blue in the late winter night. Four hundred fans greeted the team when it arrived from Seattle after winning the berth. Blue banners were flown from every fraternity and sorority house. And the Pack was the talk almost everywhere beer was on tap.

Never had the Wolf Pack gone so far. It came to a screeching halt on March 26 when Georgia Tech defeated them, 72-67. Fifteen hundred fans who made the trip gave them a standing ovation.

Since then, head coach Trent Johnson moved on to Stanford and star player Kirk Snyder opted to go pro with the Utah Jazz.

The fight for the Ballardini

When it came to land preservation, Washoe County commissioners took an unprecedented step in condemning private land for open space when it filed a lawsuit in August to take the Ballardini Ranch by force.

For a decade, conservationists sought the 1,019-acre ranch as the last piece in protecting the foothills from Reno to the Mount Rose Highway. A public vote in 2000 earmarked $4 million for the purchase, and the federal government agreed to put up $15 million. Then the Minnesota developers decided not to sell.

Open space was a big issue in 2004.

Washoe County and other governments sought to buy the famous Ponderosa Ranch at Incline Village, but the owners dropped those negotiations and instead sold the prime Lake Tahoe property to billionaire David Duffield.

In Northern Washoe County, the U.S. interior secretary in August approved money to buy 18,637 acres containing critical watering holes for antelope, deer and big horn sheep. That would complete public ownership of the Granite Range, the Buffalo Hills and Wall Canyon northwest of Gerlach.

Bertha’s body found

The story of Bertha Anguiano came to a sad conclusion when her body was found on a dirt road west of Fallon on Sept. 16 after being missing for almost a year. She was 33.

Israel Tellez, an old boyfriend who was identified as a suspect early on, committed suicide Dec. 8 in a prison cell in Utah. Carson sheriff’s officials were preparing to file a warrant in the slaying. Tellez, however, was never charged.

The Carson City woman disappeared Nov. 10, 2003, and her 3-year-old son, bleeding from the head, walked into a grocery in Dayton alone.

Tellez was in prison for drawing a gun on a police officer after Salt Lake authorities sought to bring him to custody in November 2003.

Copyright © 2004 The Reno Gazette-Journal


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