1. Wildland fire in Kittitas County Video: Sunlight Waters resident talks about his flight from the Taylor Bridge Fire
Sparks blamed on a crew working on a State Route 10 bridge on a hot August day set off the most destructive forest fire to strike Central Washington in decades.
Pushed by strong winds, the fire destroyed dozens of homes and scorched 36 square miles of forests and sagebrush lands east of Cle Elum.
More than 1,000 firefighters and a small fleet of aircraft battled the blaze, dubbed the Taylor Bridge Fire, for two weeks beginning Aug. 3. By the time it was over, the fire had destroyed 61 homes and more than 200 outbuildings. Hundreds were evacuated, some just minutes ahead of the flames.
Described as fast, unpredictable and frightening, the fire surrounded several units of veteran firefighters who had to be rescued. No residents or firefighters were injured, but early estimates for suppression and rebuilding total more than $24 million.
A state investigation said the fire was started by either the contractor or subcontractor working on the bridge for the state Department of Transportation.
Investigators said workers were cutting steel and welding — activities that cause sparks — in violation of a 1 p.m. shut-down time imposed by the state to prevent fires in the region’s tinder-dry conditions.
Some victims have filed lawsuits against the two companies, which deny liability. Others are filing claims with insurance adjusters hired by the two companies and the state, which expects to be sued.
2. Triple-murder charges dropped Video: Friend, defense attorney react to dismissal of Goggin family murder charges against Kevin Harper
In October, following several missteps by investigators and prosecutors, Kevin Harper, the man once described as the prime suspect in the February 2011 bludgeoning deaths of Yakima civil engineer Bill Goggin, his wife, Pauline, and his mother, Bettye, reached a stunning plea deal with prosecutors that saw all but two relatively minor charges dismissed.
The first hint something was wrong arose in August, when the trial judge was forced to declare Harper’s aggravated murder trial under way to avoid violating his rights to a speedy trial. As part of the process, the judge fined a deputy prosecutor $1,000 for failing to turn over evidence quickly enough.
Other problems were also cropping up, including revelations that several recorded jail phone calls between Harper and his attorneys had been “accessed” by a sheriff’s detective.
The final straw came when it was learned that detectives had ignored observations by a neighbor of the Goggin family could have bolstered Harper’s alibi.
The remaining suspect facing murder charges in the case, Tracy Culton, is scheduled for trial in early March. Given the notoriety of the case, the court expects to call in 300 people to serve in the jury pool.
3. Yakima Bears depart
2012 marked the year Yakima lost its last vestige of professional sports.
A local presence since 1990, the Yakima Bears baseball team announced it was leaving town in 2011. It cited poor attendance and unspecified problems with the Yakima County Stadium. For a while, it appeared the team would be moving to Vancouver, Wash. But that plan fell through when officials there refused to back a financing plan for a new stadium. The Bears played through the 2012 season in Yakima, but it was increasingly obvious the owners wanted to move.
In early June, the Hillsboro (Ore.) City Council approved an offer for the Bears to start 2013 in a new $15.2 million, 4,500-seat stadium financed by the city.
After 22 years here, the Yakima Bears became history, joining a list of other professional teams, including the Yakima Reds (soccer), Sun Kings (basketball) and Shockwave and the Yakima Valley Warriors (both indoor football) that left in recent years after struggling to attract fans.
4. Yakima gains new manager
Tony O’Rourke so impressed Yakima City Council members that they unanimously picked him in April as the city’s new manager.
O’Rourke, in what those who know him describe as characteristic style, jumped into the job with both feet in July and hasn’t looked back. Council members seem happy with O’Rourke’s style. Hired for his mix of public and private experience, O’Rourke had previously been city manager of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Before that, he was the executive director of a resort company in Vail, Colo.
In five months, he has overseen changes in city budgeting, helping to find money to add a second gang unit. He successfully sought a council-approved bond to fund a first phase of street repairs, and the council recently agreed to call for a public vote on a $30 car tab fee that would add more money for streets. And he’s starting work on improving Yakima’s economy by hiring an economic development manager, setting aside space for downtown events and earmarking money for a downtown master plan.
O’Rourke follows Dick Zais, who spent 32 years molding his policy and budget goals into the culture of City Hall, and Don Cooper, who had barely started when in November 2011 he returned to Florida after just four months on the job.
5. Banner year for agriculture
While the final numbers aren’t yet tallied, it appears the value of Yakima Valley farm products could set a record.
How much? Perhaps even more than last year, which stands as an all time high. Statewide, farmers saw their products estimated at $9.1 billion that year.
Not that it has been easy. There were weather problems, labor uncertainties and an unstable global economy. But despite the challenges most sectors of agriculture reported a strong year.
Ag officials report apples and wine grapes had an outstanding year, while prices for beef, hay, wheat and corn also did well because of drought conditions in the Midwest.
Prices remain good for key Yakima Valley products despite record busting crop sizes. Northwest Cherry Growers shipped a record 22.7 million boxes to market surpassing the 2009 record of 20.3 million boxes.
Meanwhile, this year’s apple crop is projected at 129.7 million boxes — some 19 percent larger than the previous record set in 2010. Demand has kept prices steady because of frost damage to apple crops in Michigan and New York.