The story that affected the most people in the Mountain Area in 2015, as well as residents of the Central Valley, was the continued closure of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, and all the legal maneuvering that swirled around it. In the final days of 2015, Chukchansi representatives said the casino would reopen 10 a.m. today, Dec. 31, with a grand reopening planned for mid-January. This came after the tribe reached a settlement agreement with the National Indian Gaming Commission, and U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill lifted all closure orders.
The casino and 192-room hotel was closed by federal and state officials Oct. 10, 2014, for the safety of employees and the public, after an attempted armed takeover of the property by hired security of a rival tribal faction of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians. Following the incident, 15 people were arrested for trespassing and false imprisonment. The last of those cases was settled earlier this month.
The attempted takeover followed years of tribal in-fighting over control of the tribe’s 10-year-old casino, and the reported $100 million a year in profits that it rakes in. The closure put more than 1,000 employees out of work - an estimated 600 from Madera County, including 250 residents of the Mountain Area - and large losses in revenue to many vendors that serviced the facility.
Another topic on the minds of area residents was the four years of drought, resulting in a bark beetle infestation that killed off at least 22 million trees in California forests. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Oct. 30, seeking federal funds to assist in the removal of dead or dying trees.
What this meant for areas like Cascadel Woods (east of North Fork), was a 90% mortality rate for Ponderosa Pines.
Cal Fire crews worked diligently to remove hundreds of trees, which could impact major roadways come winter.
A review of other stories that made headlines in the Sierra Star during 2015 are as follows:
* Oscar Bustillos is charged with allegedly starting the Sept. 14, 2014 Courtney Fire, which quickly spread from Courtney Lane off Crane Valley Road (426), up a ravine to Bass Lake Heights, destroying 30 homes.
* Yosemite Lumber changes ownership on Jan. 1, when employee James Bates purchases the Chukchansi business. Bates had worked at the business since 1986 when it was still under the ownership of his aunt and uncle, Everett and Carolyn Plum.
* New Madera County leadership are sworn into office Jan. 6, including Sheriff Jay Varney, District 1 Supervisor Brett Frazier, District Attorney David Linn, and Auditor-Controller Todd Miller.
* On Jan. 13, the Madera County Board of Supervisors make the decision to deny a 29% pay increase to their own annual salaries. The decisions to deny the raise comes after the board recently approved a 5% Cost of Living increase to all county employees.
* On Jan 16, Patrice Jensen received the Lifetime Achievement Award, Randy Papike the Man of the Year, and Ellen Peterson the Woman of the Year awards for 2014 at the annual Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce Installation and Awards dinner, held Jan. 16 at the Tenaya Lodge.
* Last month was the driest January ever recorded in the history of California. The lack of rain, combined with warmer-than-average temperatures, has produced a meager snow pack, raising fears of a continuing state drought.
* Erna Kubin-Clanin, owner of Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant and Chateau du Sureau, will be honored with the California Restaurant Association, Central California Chapter’s “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
* Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California partners with Yosemite High School to provide a mentoring program for students at Oakhurst Elementary School made possible by a $20,000 donation by the Bryant family of True Value Home Center.
* Interior Board of Indian Appeals Judge Steven K. Linscheid ruled Feb. 9 that the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians be governed by the tribal council elected in 2010, the last undisputed tribal council.
* Yosemite High School wins the Madera County Academic Decathlon, with Jonathan Wharton named the highest scoring decathlete. The 16-member Yosemite team walked away from the event with nearly 50 individual medals.
* The Madera County Workforce Investment Board receives a grant to help former Chukchansi casino employees with schooling and on-the-job vocational training. About 600 of the more than 1,000 workers are residents of Madera County, and of that number 250 live in Eastern Madera County.
* Active North Fork community member Janet Wheeler is named 2014 Citizen of the Year during the North Fork Boosters annual dinner at the Town Hall.
* A satellite District Attorney’s office will open in Oakhurst March 6. David Engstrom, who has served as an investigator for the deputy district attorney for 15 years, will be in the office weekdays.
* The proposed Austin Quarry site, located at the southwest corner of highways 145 and 41, is criticized at a Town Hall meeting. Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler told the crowd that the county isn’t close to making a decision, and that it is a very long process.
* Beginning July 1, pockets of thickly populated areas, where as many as 35% of residents do not subscribe to disposal services, will join the city of Madera and Chowchilla in having a mandatory waste disposal service.
* The Department of Water Resources calls the snow pack’s water content historically low for early March, at just 13% of average (the lowest in DWRs records for this time of year).
* Harry H. Baker, Jr., 87, Sierra Tel president, and former Madera County supervisor is in stable condition after suffering a stroke in the Fresno County Jail, while awaiting trial for one count of lewd and lascivious act on a female minor. Baker has been in the county jail since Sept. 24, 2014, after failing to appear at two previous court hearings.
* Harry H. Baker, Jr., dies April 3, in a Fresno Hospice facility. He is remembered for being a philanthropist and a long-time community leader.
* Gov. Jerry Brown orders 25% mandatory reduction in water use by cities and towns. These are the strictest measures ever taken in the state, and went into effect immediately.
* Fourteen members of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino tribal police force and security team file legal claims against Madera County saying they were falsely arrested and jailed for trying to take back a casino gaming office from an opposing faction. On April 10, Madera County Superior Court Judge Dale Blea said he would not dismiss criminal charges, and that the county had acted properly in making the arrests.
* Given the drought, plans are underway to find an alternative to the busy July 4th celebration at Bass Lake. It is decided that a laser light show will be offered instead.
* The historic four-acre Sierra Sky Ranch Resort, off Highway 41 just north of Oakhurst, undergoes major upgrades in preparation for a grand re-opening later in the year.
* Seven homes in the Bass Lake Heights subdivision, off Crane Valley Road (426) east of Oakhurst, destroyed by the Courtney Fire are currently in some stage of construction.
* Friends of the Oakhurst Branch Library hold a ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony for the “Sue Rhu Children’s Room.” Rhu, who died April 7 at the age of 84, served as the library’s branch manager for 24 years (1972-1996).
* Nearly $46,000 is raised during the 30th annual Elegant Auction to benefit the Oakhurst Community Park. Andrew Pence, who served as both the Park Committee Chairman and Elegant Auction Committee Chairman, called the event a huge success.
* More than 160 financial awards from clubs, organizations, businesses, and families totaling more than $100,000, are presented to 72 Yosemite High School seniors.
* Cal Fire presented options to the Madera County Board of Supervisors April 29, that would raise funds ranging from $1.2 million to $5.7 million annually for much-needed fire protection. The options included a 1/2 cent increase in sales tax.
* Five men charged in the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino raid accept plea deals.
* Former Yosemite High School Music Director Randy Hyatt is honored May 6 with the unveiling of his name on the school’s music building. Hyatt oversaw the growth of the school’s music program for 11 years, and retired in 2014.
* About 470 people participate in the 15th annual Relay for Life event, which raises $51,000 to “give cancer the boot,” this year’s theme.
* Sheriff Jay Varney promotes Sergeant Larry Rich to a new position - Problem Oriented Policing (POP). As such, he will be the first contact for businesses and residents experiencing ongoing crime.
* Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) buses are now running on Highway 41, after five years of planning between Dick Whittington, transit manager for YARTS, and the Fresno Council of Governments (FCOG).
* Bark beetles have infested and killed more than 12 million trees, primarily Ponderosa Pines, over four million acres of forest and private lands up and down the state, including the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests. This is a huge increase from the 350,000 dead trees reported a year ago.
* The new dome gym at Wasuma Elementary School rose from the ground June 4. The monolithic dome-shaped gym is the first of its kind for a California school, and will be home to a 40 x 70 foot basketball/volleyball court, a 30 x 50 foot stage, two sets of moveable bleachers, three equipment storage rooms, and restrooms.
* The Eastern Madera County Chamber Alliance, and the two Oakhurst Rotary clubs have joined for a voluntary safety campaign - “No Open Fire” - in the hopes that Mountain Area businesses and residents will help spread the cautionary word this fire season.
* The 16th Annual Oakhurst Rib Fest on June 20, will serve as a 50th birthday party for the Oakhurst Community Center. The site of countless events over the years, the center, on Fresno Flats Road (425B), was built by a team of more than 100 volunteers who saw the need for a meeting place benefiting the entire community. The building was built on land donated by Jack and Mary Owens.
* Kelsi Stieler, who will attend California State University Fresno on a full-ride four-year Smittcamp Scholarship, is named the 2015 Yosemite High School Student of the Year June 2, during the school’s final assembly of the year.
* Sierra Oakhurst Kiwanis Club now has the “Best Ribs in the Mountains” title as voted on by nearly 300 people who attended the June 20, Oakhurst Rib Fest, sponsored by the Oakhurst Community Center. The event raised a record-breaking $18,500 for upkeep and improvements to the community center.
* The Sky and Corrine fires are in “mop-up” mode, after the Sky Fire, north of Oakhurst, burned more than 500 acres, and the Corrine Fire, between North Fork and Auberry, burned 920 acres. No homes were lost (three outbuildings from Corrine), and no injuries were reported from either fire.
* When Chukchansi tribal council members recently asked the Madera County Board of Supervisors to sign off on a settlement agreement that will help the tribe reopen its casino, the supervisors refused, stating they were unwilling to sign an agreement until the issue of tribal governance has been resolved.
* As of July 1, Jackie Mallouf serves as the Sunrise Rotary Club president, and Dr. Bob Brosi as the Noon Rotary Club president. They bring with them a combined 58 years of club service.
* Tex McDonald, 65, former Chukchansi tribal chairman, is sentenced July 2 in Madera County Superior Court and released from jail the following day. In a plea agreement, McDonald was sentenced to 485 days in prison after pleading guilty to false imprisonment stemming from the Oct. 9 armed takeover of the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino. McDonald served 242 days in jail and received credit for time served, leading to his release.
* Bob Macaulay is named Oakhurst Honory Mayor. He represents the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst, and raised more than $5,000 for the club.
* A Fresno teenager is killed in a boating accident on Bass Lake on June 27. His 16-year-old aunt of Houston, Texas is seriously injured in the accident. It is reported that the children were riding an inflatable intertube pulled behind a pontoon boat, when they were struck by a WaveRunner (jet ski) driven by a San Jose man.
* After three years at the helm of the Chawanakee Unified School District, Bob Nelson is leaving the position as the district’s superintendent to return to Fresno Unified School District, where he had previously served for 21 years.
* The 142-acre, 18-hole Sierra Meadows Golf Course in Ahwahnee has been purchased by Charlie Sheldon and Reid Spice. At this time, the new owners plan to keep the facility open with reduced green fees, waiving membership initiation fees, eliminating cart fees to members, and reopening the clubhouse restaurant for lunch and dinner, with plans to develop the property into a large-scale conference center in the future.
* Dr. Darin Soukup, who has served as the executive director of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce for the past three years, is named the new director of the Oakhurst Community College Center. His appointment was made official July 7, with the unanimous vote of the seven-member State Community College District Board of Trustees.
* Dale Miller, 78, the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Man of the Year and president of the Oakhurst Community Center Board of Directors, dies July 20, after a fight with cancer.
* A $35 million deal with creditors is close to being reached to reopen the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino by the end of the year, perhaps as early as Labor Day, but the tribe is still awaiting state and federal approval to open.
* The Bass Lake Water Company notified its customers that mandatory Stage 3 Water Conservation Rules will go into effect July 1, which prohibits all outside watering including landscaping, or the washing of vehicles, boats, trailers, patios, decks and docks. For the second consecutive year, Stage 3 rules are a response to a low-flow condition in the North Fork of Willow Creek, the main source of water for the company, due to the continued drought and lack of snow pack in the high country.
* A male juvenile is suspected of starting the Willow Fire July 25 in the Sierra National Forest between North Fork and Bass Lake when he lit pine branches ablaze that fell to the forest floor and quickly grew out of control. More than 1,900 firefighters worked to contain the the flames. No structures were damaged, though hundreds were threatened by the inferno.
* Phat Chau, 59 of San Jose, is charged with involuntary manslaughter after a boating accident on Bass Lake killed a Fresno teenager.
* Some Cascadel Woods residents evacuated during the 5,702-acre Willow Fire return to find their homes ransacked and thousands of dollars in items stolen. Five homes about two miles east of North Fork were burglarized. Sheriff Jay Varney calls the burglaries a “disgusting act.”
* The Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce names Joelle V. Leder as the organization’s new executive director. Leder has more than 10 years of experience in sales, marketing, public relations, social media, and as an operations director. Leder will begin her new position Aug. 17.
* The Grocery Discount Center (GDC) on Road 426 closes Aug. 31. Randy and Anita Disney have owned the business since 2008, and last year slowly began the switch from the selling of food items to general merchandise. However, following Randy’s death, Anita said it was time to let go and move on.
* Long-time Mountain Area residents Ken and Barbara Kirby, and Al and Helen Merkle are named Grand Marshals for the 19th annual Mountain Heritage Days.
* A minor is charged with two felonies for starting the 5,702-acre Willow Fire that forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes and cost an estimated $20 million to contain.
* Hillview Water Company requests a rate increase of 46.3%, which would increase company annual revenues by $653,296. The proposed rate increase would affect about 1,470 customers in Oakhurst, Sierra Lakes, Goldside, Hillview, Coarsegold, and Raymond.
* The Madera County Board of Supervisors will soon decide the fate of a 113-acre Planned Development District at North Fork’s old mill site after the project was approved by the county’s planning commission 4-0 on Sept. 29. The 113 acres represent about 2/3 of the total old mill property, and would include areas designated for light industrial, medium density residential, mixed use, and open space for recreation.
* Christian Goode, who took over as Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino’s chief operating officer in July, says positive developments for the tribe have taken place, and that a collective bargaining agreement was recently struck for some 700 former employees at the casino.
* EMADCO Disposal Service gears up for its residential recycling program which will begin the first of October. The state has mandated that the county divert 75% of trash for recycling by 2020.
* The Madera County Board of Supervisors unanimously approve a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that, if agreed upon by Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians leaders, could prove a key step in reopening the tribe’s casino.
* Two Oakhurst teenagers, who accidentally started the 13-acre Sundance Fire on Sept. 13, are arrested and booked into the Madera County Juvenile Detention Facility. It was learned during the initial investigation that the two were lighting spray from aerosol cans, apparently shooting flames at each other, which ignited nearby dry vegetation. According to District Attorney David Linn, the fire was not intentional, but highly negligent, as far as he knows.
* A seven-unit apartment complex to house seven single chronically homeless is coming to Oakhurst. The facility, as part of the HUD grant, will give preference and priority to serving homeless veterans, but will be offered to all chronically homeless as vacancies become available.
* Charlie Sheldon and Reid Spice, the owners of the 1,300-acre Sierra Meadows Country Club, announce closure of the 142-acre golf course on Oct. 31. The owners add that they will re-open next spring under a new name for conferences, retreats, and seminars with an updated bar and cafe area, adding a few cabins to the RV park, and a year-round calendar of live music, lectures, and other special events for the community.
* Yosemite High School Spanish and Political Science instructor Steve Browning is named Madera County Teacher of the Year by the Madera County Office of Education. Browning was honored Oct. 8 at the “Excellence in Education” awards dinner at the Madera Municipal Golf Course.
* The Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino’s elected council is sworn in last week. Several contesting groups still claim they have rightful leadership which could continue to delay the reopening process.
* Hundreds of art lovers searched for a variety of treasures created by a diverse group of area artists during the 13th Annual Sierra Art Trails. More than 100 artists showed their artwork during the three-day event.
* After 35 years with the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, Roy Broomfield retires earlier this month. In 31 years as a full-time officer, Broomfield served on patrols, investigated deaths as chief deputy coroner, and responded to dangerous crimes on the county SWAT team. In the last 18 years, he also served as a school resource officer at Yosemite High School, as well as Minarets High School for three.
* This year’s record-breaking number, size, and costs to fight wildland fires across the country has a dramatic impact on the U.S. Forest Service non-firefighting programs. The cost for the Forest Service to fight wildfires across the county this year has surpassed the all-time annual record - hitting $1.73 billion.
* The Hollands, who have owned and operated Western Sierra Nursery for 29 years, have sold their business to the Conaways, who plan on making no changes to the business. Escrow is due to close mid-January.
* The National Park Service (NPS) has selected Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, a subsidiary of Aramark, to receive the new primary concession contract for providing visitor services in Yosemite National Park. The 15-year contract worth nearly $2 billion is expected to begin March 1, 2016.
* Gov. Jerry Brown declares a state of emergency as an infestation of bark beetles and four years of drought are expected to kill off at least 22 million trees in California forests. The emergency order, made Oct. 30, seeks to free up federal funds and assistance to remove the dead or dying trees, which has reached a scale where areas like Cascadel Woods, east of North Fork, has a 90% mortality rate for Ponderosa Pines.
* Phat Chau, 59 of San Jose, plead no contest (the same as guilty) and was sentenced Oct. 29 to 120 days in jail and three years probation for the wreck on June 27, where he drove a jet ski into an inner tube ridden by David Flores, 13, and his aunt Julissa Valenzuela, 16, both of Fresno. Flores died, and Valenzuela suffered injuries.
* The Golden Chain Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” opens to rave reviews after sold-out performances.
* Don Eaves and JoAnn Swallow are honored as the 2015 Man and Woman Angels of the Year, while Robin Wages and Tim Madden are chosen as Heroes of the Year Sunday during the 19th Annual “Angels & Heroes Amongst Us” awards dinner at Evergreen Conference Center.
* A federal judge orders Gov. Jerry Brown to return to discussions with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians on a Madera-area casino, saying the governor acted in “bad faith” by halting negotiations with the tribe earlier this year. The casino was planned for a 305-acre site just north of the Madera Municipal Airport, near Highway 99 and Avenue 17, with 2,000 slot machines 40 gaming tables, and a hotel. The 305 acres are in federal trust for the tribe.
* After nearly 18 months without activity, construction crews are busy working on what will be a 108-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and a 108-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on the west side of Highway 41 in Oakhurst. The plan of Paul and Ambrish Patel is to build a third hotel, a 108-room Hampton Inn by Marriott, adjacent to the other two hotels.
* The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week released a proposed resolution for higher rates on all Hillview Water Company customers that, if approved, will raise the company’s annual revenues by 23%.
* About 1,000 acres near Minarets High School may become an outdoor sporting destination. At a total price of $2.39 million, barring future appraisals, the land owned by Margaret Jamison will cost the county $311,700, with the remainder covered by state and federal grants. It was unanimously approved for purchase by the Madera County Board of Supervisors Nov. 3.
* The 20 acres located at the southwest corner of Highway 41 and the entrance to Yosemite Lakes Park in Coarsegold will be developed in three phases, first - a mini mart/gas station, and upscale coffee house; second - office space; and finally, housing for seniors.
* A Cal Fire crew cut down hundreds of dead trees along Malum Ridge Road (274) because, with winter weather, dead trees can be dangerous to driver and roadway safety.
* Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino may be closer to reopening after a revised Memorandum of Understanding was unanimously approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors. In the new agreement, the tribe agrees to pay more than $1.2 million to the county, as well as $1 million annual payments delayed the last two years.
* While recent rains and cooler temperatures have lowered the threat of wildfires in some areas of the state, Cal Fire continues to have extra firefighter staffing statewide and remains at peak fire season in Central and Southern California.
* Retired banker and active community leader Doug Dearing will receive the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce during the organization’s Jan. 15 Installation Dinner & Awards Ceremony at the Pines Resort at Bass Lake. Steve Welch, owner and broker of Bass Lake Realty and general manager of the Bass Lake Water Co., will be honored as the chamber’s Man of the Year, and Donna Smith of Foster & Parker Insurance, will be honored as Woman of the Year. The chamber also announced that Oakhurst Feed & Pet Supply, owned by Colette Goga, is the 2015 Business of the Year.
* The National Indian Gaming Commission announces a settlement agreement has been reached with the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, which cleared the way for its reopening Dec. 31 after an order by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill.