Mendocino County Today: Monday, Oct. 23, 2017

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by Bruce McEwen

The Courthouse was seriously disrupted for Dr. Peter Keegan’s entry of plea to Second Degree Murder on Friday morning. All the felonies had been put in Department H where Judge John Behnke usually presides, and the courtroom was crowded when Dr. Keegan, looking like the terminal cancer patient he apparently is, was carefully, even reverently pushed into Judge Moorman's courtroom in a wheelchair.


Keegan's routine entry of a plea had already been put over nearly two months, as the Superior Court steadily manages to convert the Ukiah doctor to victim rather than defendant. Promptly at nine o’clock Judge Ann Moorman appeared, and no sooner than the bailiff had said, “Please be seated and come to order,” the judge called the Keegan matter.

But Keegan’s lawyer, Mr. Chris Andrian of Santa Rosa, wasn’t there, so Judge Moorman disappeared back into her inner sanctum. After a moment she reappeared and said that whenever Mr. Andrian arrived, she would call the case in Department A. Then she left again.

Next Judge Behnke came out to process the usual suspects, they having been put on hold while the Keegan matter took over the judicial process. And it wasn't just consideration for Keegan's condition because it isn't unusual for defendants from the social class far below medical doctors to come to court, even from the jail, in wheelchairs, some of them dying of cancer, like the late John Ross of Covelo, who died of cancer in jail while being tried for murder with no special treatment at all — not to mention that the case against him was very weak.

Finally, sometime around 9:30, defense attorney Andrian showed up and Judge Moorman again dropped what she was doing to return to Dr. Keegan. (If this reporter sounds a little peevish, let me say there were plenty of people in the Keegan entourage, perhaps even the judge herself, who clearly felt a medical doctor should never, under any circumstances, be subjected to the same process of law the catch of the day is subjected to.)

Andrian said his client would plead Not Guilty, but that the earliest he (Andrian) would be available for trial would be sometime in March. This would require a time waiver, for the trial date must be set within 60 days of the entry of plea.

Deputy DA Timothy Stoen had no objection, but the judge wanted the next step of the process (the time waiver) hidden from the public and called the lawyers into chambers. When they all emerged a few minutes later, the trial date of March 12th had been agreed to.

And everything would have gone off as planned if DA David Eyster hadn’t come bustling in just then and summoned Mr. Stoen into the hall. Tim Stoen being nearly deaf, and my position standing at the door, allowed me to overhear Eyster tell Stoen to come back in and withdraw the time waiver — which Judge Moorman must have induced him to enter in the privacy of her chambers — which Mr. Stoen did. (Three cheers for the DA!)

At this point Andrian, another guy who seems to expect special treatment, exploded in a fit of indignation, saying The People [Eyster] couldn’t do that, and that he wanted to argue against it. Judge Moorman said he could take two weeks to file his pleadings, and she would hear them on November 8th at 9:00 in Department B.

Nothing whatsoever was said about Dr. Keegan’s freely admitting to the Grand Jury that said he should be tried for murdering his wife that he had been writing scripts for pain meds for her via friends of his late wife, and that he'd also slandered his murdered ex as a drug addict and a drunk. My landlord told me the day before that a local doctor he had never met before wrote him a script for 90 OxyContin pills for an outbreak of shingles to get him through the weekend until he could see his regular MD.

The courts are all in a quandary over the “opioid epidemic,” but no judge dares question the judgement of doctors – of whom my landlord asked this pertinent question: “Are they getting a kick-back?” Rest assured the judges are not the least bit interested in questioning the ethics of their betters, and we see it over and over, how their honors bend over backwards to accommodate doctors, having already bowed down before them in every conceivable sense of deference and awe.

Despite all these legalistic maneuvers and postponements, given Dr. Keegan’s terminal condition and the probable months of delays, it does not seem likely that he will live to see a trial, much less a jail cell.

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by Rex Gressett

Next Monday at their regular meeting the Fort Bragg City Council will consider a resolution adopting a Code of Civility as a new permanent feature of our local city government.

For those who have not seen lame duck City Manager Linda Ruffing’s astonishing Orwellian giant projection screen that now descends from the ceiling of town hall on command, bearing its message of restraint and wisdom, the proposed code is as follows:

Pay attention


Be inclusive

Don’t gossip

Show respect

Be agreeable


Give constructive criticism

At the same time that I have to find this code humorously infantile, I also have a suspicion that within the coils of its very mildness there is a lurking danger. I got to wondering if this insipid lobotomized monochrome might not be just trite. It has been pushed too hard. It is being promoted nationally and its origin is entirely obscure. It came from nowhere. The website gives very little information about how this brainstorm got rolling or who is behind it. The list seems entirely childish but one wonders if perhaps it has not been more carefully designed than you would think.

I have a couple of suggestions in future articles how they might make it more adult and perhaps less dangerous.

One thing I think we should notice is that this bunny soft Code of Civility has one very hard, inflexible, central point and I suggest one purpose. The Code of Civility gives somebody, whoever is in charge of enforcing the Civility Code, in our case the Mayor, a hell of a lot of power. Indeed by the Code of Civility our arguably untrustworthy and increasingly suspect Mayor Lindy Peters has had bestowed upon him the iron fist of an absolute veto disguised in a bunny fur glove. We should observe that it gives him theoretically total arbitrary personal control over the City Council public participation dialogue.

I am not saying that he can get away with abusing power, and I am not suggesting that under normal circumstances he would try, but the Code of Civility not so subtly gives him considerable power. The platitudes with which they presume to saddle adult discussion are so general, so subject to wide interpretation that the Mayor can call just about anything agreeable or inclusive or unfriendly any time he wants. With the power of the Civility Code Mayor Peters can thunderously prohibit discussion if we push his bad button. Imagine the Mayor saying “You’re not paying attention.” … “You’re not being agreeable” … “You’re not being inclusive.”… I don’t find the image all that implausible . What the hell are we doing empowering Lindy Peters to make those calls even on a long shot. Or the next mayor.

Having a Code of Civility at all first came up because of an incident that occurred at the council workshop lunch. Samantha ‘Sam’ Zuttler, the City Attorney, and to a lesser degree our City Manager were insulted and threatened by an irate constituent basically temporarily off his nut. I emphasize this unusual rudeness was perpetrated by one guy.

Mayor Peters bravely intervened. There were no arrests. In the weeks and months that followed the city administration made fainting allusions to mass terror and in particular Mayor Peters emerged as a kind of point man for paranoid official hyper-alertness. The whole crew really seemed to love being “aware of the danger.” It was like being on TV. The incident, though of course in excusable, was tiny, but they used it like slapstick theater to produce mighty waves. The Sam Zuttler incident was a tiny flash of fire in the spilled gasoline of their wider narrative of persecution.

In the Go group narrative counselor Zuttler’s assailant was not the only but only the latest of a bunch of wicked democracy disrupters who had been abusing the process and interfering with a well managed paradise to the hurt of fundamental democracy. According to the Go crowd and the United Social Services bunch, bad manners and ignorance were screwing up an omniscient City Manager and her faithful council.

They screwed them up pretty thoroughly as it turned out. In two successive election cycles Fort Bragg dumped their City Council as fast as they came up for election. Lindy Peters, elected in 2014, fooled everybody and turned his back definitively on his election promises and his constituency. But even he started out reformist anti-City Manager shmoozer. Even with Peters’ decisive defection the remaining new majority was brave enough and determined enough to take on the other guys’ queen (city manager) and terminate that phase of chess moves.

A great many formerly happy camper social service supporters thought that having idiots calling for elections back in the Measure U days (to prohibit homeless services operations in the small city center), was pretty darned undemocratic. Recalling the mayor unspeakable.

And there was vivid evidence of degeneracy in the parade of unenlightened and wrathful constituents being pushy at the podium. It was alleged that these suppressors of democracy were interfering with accustomed norms and normal people were becoming afraid to even argue with them. It was a reign of terror.

Heidi Kraus claimed that opponents of City Council policy were spontaneously threatening her baby. According to the Go narrative the astonished public was afraid even to go to the City Council meetings.

It could be observed that the meeting used to be empty when they were supposed to be safe, but now that they were acknowledged to be dangerous they are full. Nevertheless in spite of this observable fact many insisted that the new full meetings did not by any means include very many timorous and sensitive souls who would otherwise have a lot to say. Activists with their damn research and logic were ruining the homey feeling of the City Council meeting that obedient and non-boat-rocking citizens were accustomed to. The slipping status quo longed for all the bad vibes to be throttled down.

They longed all the more as they kept losing elections. They squirmed as strange people not even of their class were seen on the podium yelling at the City Council. Haranguing them at the least, pushing with old fashioned and politically quite incorrect emotional and psychic engagement. All of it was making both the meek and the consciously enlightened unfairly uncomfortable. There wasa strong faction that cried woefully for official redress.

The sense among the powerful that people were acting badly grew in an exact proportion to the displacement of the powerful from civic power.

The Code of Civility is a reminder that the status quo was challenged at the podium and at the ballot box and never liked one minute of it. In the Code of Civility they are cursing us with their last breath.

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MR. GRESSETT’S REPORT of Fort Bragg’s proposed Code of Civility reminded The Major of a Community Services Board meeting back in 2003 where he reported:

By the time last week’s Community Services Board meeting began most of the people present had become familiar with newly seated Board Member Sophie Otis’s new-age rules for meeting decorum:

“Facilitate communication by: Accept the other person's right to speak by listening, not overtalking-dominating conversation by sheer verbal output, being overloud/fast, interrupting or butting-in. When you are recognized to speak, keep on point and avoid distorting issues by rambling, exaggeration, emotionalism, premature conclusions, or dogmatic assertions. Keep your communications with others clear and clean, no abusive or derogatory talk, personal criticism or nonconstructive remarks. We all appreciate humor but not when offensive to another person. Limit your remarks to the business at hand and speak only when recognized by the chair for the amount of time you are given. And we will accomplish our task and remain friends.”

Ms. Otis was on vacation in Australia, a notoriously unmannerly country on the other side of the world from Boonville, but merriment inspired by “Sophie's Rules” dominated much of the meeting.

Referencing one neo-Miss Manners gaffe or another, board members, the general manager, the fire chief and the one reporter present gleefully cited one another for this or that example of non-Sophie-sanctioned behavior.

The “no-overtalking” rule was violated several times by the unrestrained and under-trained. Several attendees popped off unilaterally, blithely ignoring the no-speaking-before-being-recognized rule. Fire Chief Colin Wilson couldn’t help breaking the rule about keeping communications clear as he rambled through syntactical thickets whose paths only he could find. And both Chief Wilson and the reporter present were cited several times each for making “dogmatic assertions” or “nonconstructive remarks.”

General Manager Margo Silva-Hoyt immediately saw that the great incidence of Sophie-Rule violations presented an opportunity for the District to partially balance its budget; she quickly produced a piggy bank which filled up with small bills and coins as the many perps freely confessed to their various violations — kind of like corporate execs see law breaking fines as the cost of doing business. If Sophie's Rules could be applied to the greater community at large, the CSD would be sitting on a fat surplus in a matter of hours.

One of the frequent rule violators (this reporter) suggested that Ms. Otis’s rules go back to the policy and procedures committee where a fine schedule could be attached to them with, of course, lifetime exemptions (at a suitably hefty price) for the hopelessly incorrigible like the reporter himself.

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Starting Monday, areas of eastern Humboldt and Mendocino County will see temperatures between the mid 80s and low 90s.

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Dear Editor:

Our family would like to thank the residents of Anderson Valley for their $525.00 donation thus far to rebuild homes with Habitat For Humanity. We have moved the donation jars to AV Market, Rossi Hardware, and The Buckhorn for this week. We plan to continue the drive through Halloween.

Thanks so much.

The Kephart Family, Boonville

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I am a retired emergency physician. I practiced for more than 20 years in Ukiah. I clearly remember when signs were posted in the ER, mandated by the Board of Medical Quality Assurance, stating that patients had a “right” to have their pain relieved. Physicians were at legal risk if they were accused of failing to do so. Predictably, opioid abuse has risen dramatically in the US since the 1990s, in large part, I believe, because of this policy.

Now, we have a related, much more deadly scandal, as has been reported by CBS News and the Washington Post.

I’m not surprised by the actions of the usual, despicable suspects: lobbyists, Big Pharma, some chain drugstores, a few reprehensible physicians and politicians on the take. What is mystifying is how the ordained heroes (Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Barack Obama, etc.) allowed this deadly legislation to pass without dissent.

They will claim that they were bamboozled. Maybe so. The best that can be said then is that they were inattentive and incompetent. They owe it to the many dead and addicted to admit it and rectify their mistake.

As the fool who currently occupies the Oval Office would say: “So sad.”

Jeffrey A. Rapp


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ON TUESDAY, October 10, the first Supe's meeting after the catastrophic fires, and just after Sheriff Allman had delivered a grim update on the broad-scale devastation in inland Mendocino County, each of the Supervisors commented.

Third District Supervisor Georgeanne Croskey said she was concerned about the communications problems in Willits.

Supervisor Gjerde added that Leggett was having communications problems too.

Supervisor Carre Brown agreed that communications during the fires had been impaired.

Supervisor John McCowen said he appreciated the efforts everyone had made doing what they could to make the catastrophe less catastrophic.

SUPERVISOR DAN HAMBURG’S only remark was, well, here's what he said:

I just want to specifically mention the CEO who had quite an arduous trip just getting back to the County and the Emergency Operations Center and Carmel [Angelo], I know you were there pretty much all night and I even saw a facebook picture of you with your little chihuahua — it was very cute! [laughs] I know you were working hard until the very late hours or the early hours of the morning and also our County Counsel was evacuated and she had to go back in and save her horse and fortunately her house is still standing, but I look over there and I can tell she didn’t get a lot of sleep. [County Counsel Katherine Elliott smiles sheepishly.] Thank you for being here and I know you’ve been through a very arduous experience.

Elliott, Hamburg

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UNFOUNDED SPECULATION (nobody’s willing to go on record) among Mendo fire officials, based solely on the timing of Deputy CEO Alan Flora’s surprise departure taking with him his detailed knowledge of the County budget, believes that Flora was terminated because he 1) agreed with DA David Eyster that County Auditor Lloyd Weer was mishandling the Proposition 172 sales tax funds, and 2) given the centrality of fire department budgets especially in light of the Redwood Valley-Potter Valley devastation, he refused to go along with Board Chair John McCowen’s proposal to change last year’s Prop 172 sales tax allocation formula into an application-based system forcing fire departments to beg for their share of the Prop 172 money.

OF COURSE, Flora was also the only person of the male hetero persuasion on County CEO Carmel Angelo’s senior CEO office staff in the general matriarchal context of County government.

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SIRENS? Is it reasonable to expect cops to jog door-to-door warning people to get out? I read somewhere that the nazi Stukas came equipped with high powered sirens that activated when the bombers descended. Dunkirk survivors said the sirens made the bombings and the strafings twice as terrible. A Stuka siren would be just the thing for Redwood Valley, and the many other areas of Mendocino County where no neighborhood alarms exist.

FROM JONATHAN RABAN'S account of his father at Dunkirk: "The regiment was dead on its feet after more than three days of continuous fighting and retreating, shellshocked by the noise of their own and enemy artillery, and terrorized by the Stuka dive-bombers’ Jericho Trumpets – propeller-driven sirens that wailed as they dived and were designed to spread panic far beyond their immediate targets. The Germans were euphoric and alert on crystal meth; the British, French and Belgians were stupefied zombies."

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LITTLE DOG SAYS, “It galls me no end. Look at that deadbeat. Spends the whole day lounging around. The only time he's out of the prone position is free meal time. Me? On my feet and alert, 24/7.”

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FROM the current edition of The New Yorker in a story called Abuses of Power by Ronan Farrow, this paragraph: "For more than twenty years, Weinstein, who is now sixty-five, has also been trailed by rumors of sexual harassment and assault. His behavior has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond, but previous attempts by many publications, including The New Yorker, to investigate and publish the story over the years fell short of the demands of journalistic evidence..."

TRANSLATION: If the large-circulation media, including The New Yorker, had done their jobs, le porc would have been bacon-ized much sooner. Mean to tell me that the LA Times hasn't sat on this one for years?

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SHORT SHOTS: The saddest news us sports fans got today was that Dwight Clark, the great 49er of the iconic Catch, has m.s.

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BRING BACK Dusty Baker to manage the Giants and put Bochy in the third base coaching box. Check that: Put him at first where he won't do as much harm. If there's a more predictable manager in the game than Bochy, name him. Never bunts, seems never to have heard of the safety squeeze, believes heart and soul in lefty-righty regardless of the situation or the personnel, wedded to pitch counts, and so on.

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ADD to the endless list of daily irritations: full volume music on motorcycles and cars and engine mufflers deliberately modified to make as much noise as possible. We get a steady stream of both in downtown Boonville.

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by Daniel Mintz

Over the strong objections of the county’s environmental advocates and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the Humboldt County Planning Commission has voted to support allowing hundreds of existing marijuana growers to continue cultivating before they finish the permitting process.

At the October 19 HumCo Planning Commission meeting, Humboldt County’s planning director refuted the claims of several environmental groups and a DFW representative that doing so would violate the California Environmental Quality Act. He told commissioners that allowing what’s being described as “interim permitting” is aligned with the environmental review supporting Humboldt County’s commercial marijuana production ordinance.

There are 725 existing growers whose permit applications have been deemed as complete and who are eligible for the interim permitting. The program is being launched in response to the advance of state commercial marijuana licensing, which is due to start in January but could begin as early as next month.

Humboldt County’s ordinance covers commercial medical marijuana production. Since the state’s reviews cover marijuana for general or recreational use and include confirmation of local permitting, Humboldt County views the interim approvals as a means of syncing local and state processes.

But during a public comment session, it was described as an end run around the conditions of the Humboldt County’s marijuana ordinance’s environmental review document.
Scott Bauer of the DFW’s Watershed Enforcement Team said his agency has “significant concerns with providing interim permits to so many sites without some level of environmental review.”

He added that granting interim permits is “against what we believe is required” in the Humboldt County marijuana ordinance’s environmental review document.

The DFW has commented on about 200 permit marijuana permit applications since last April and Bauer said dozens have “erroneously reported their existing cultivation size … in some cases substantially.”

Bauer said there are instances where some applications were made under the existing grow category but aerial photography shows no evidence of it. Humboldt County should “at a minimum” review aerial imagery and check grow sizes before issuing interim permits, he continued.

Representatives of environmental groups also warned against the interim program. Stephanie Tidwell, the executive director of Friends of the Eel River (FOER), said her group “already had grave concerns” about the permitting process and they’ve intensified.

Humboldt County is “now proposing to dispense with even the limited environmental review” of its marijuana ordinance, she continued.

Scott Greacen, FOER’s conservation director, referred to the DFW’s stance and described interim permitting as a means of giving non-compliant growers a regulatory pass.

“If you’re going to give people a way out of complying then you’re really pulling the rug out from under the ordinance,” he said.

Tom Wheeler of the Environmental Protection and Information Center said his group shares the concerns.

The claims of skirting environmental review were firmly countered by Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford. He explained that grows in existence prior to establishment of the county’s permitting system are not considered to be non-compliant if they continue cultivating as they’re going through the approval process.

“Nothing is being permitting in the context of this ordinance amendment that’s not already allowed,” he said. “There is no change — all this functionally does is that it issues an interim permit for people who are already allowed to continue to operate.”

Interim permits are useful, he added, because they will set conditions such as prohibitions against expanding or diverging from what’s detailed in permit applications.

Ford agreed to having his staff validate reported grow site conditions. Regarding false permit application information, he said, “In all honesty, that’s something we deal with every single day.”

He acknowledged that there’s “a time crunch” with double-checking 725 applications but “in light of the concern here, that is something that needs to be done.”

A majority of commissioners voted to recommend that Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors amend the marijuana ordinance to include interim permitting. Some of the amendment language made it unclear that the ordinance’s environmental review will still apply and was stricken.

Commissioners Dave Edmunds and Alan Bongio cast dissenting votes.

The commission then proceeded with its ongoing marijuana workshop, discussing the content of recent local workshops in Garberville and Willow Creek, and several aspects of a new draft version of the marijuana ordinance.

The commission will continue the workshop process on November 2. It will be capped by a public hearing, a benchmark that was originally scheduled to occur last week.

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High Praise for Mendocino — A Model Feminist Community

We’re happy to announce that our film, Women On The Land, was recently reviewed and recommended by Films for the Feminist Classroom. We wanted to share this excellent review with the community since it’s the passionate work of our amazing community that is the focus of the film.

Here’s the review:

Women On The Land. Directed by Carmen Goodyear and Laurie York. Mendocino, California: Mendocino Coast Films, 2012. 57 minutes.

Reviewed by C. A. Pomerleau

Feminist courses in American Studies tend to overlook rural areas as sites for gender and sexuality analysis, but a fifth of Americans live rurally in population groups smaller than 2,500 people. US land remains 95 percent rural open space. Women on the Land integrates feminism, queerness, and country living with contemporary concerns about the quality of the American food system, consumerism, and environmental crises like peak oil, water shortages, and climate change.

Women on the Land’s core group formed a commune forty years ago in Mendocino County, California, and produced the journal Country Woman. The film captures back-to-the-land, feminist, and lesbian-feminist optimism and excitement while it connects 1970s values with continuing efforts to improve society.

Focusing on one location with women in long-lasting friendships achieves some narrative arc from activist beginnings through today. In the film, participants address early goals and/or contemporary interests in sustainability. They have built self-sufficiency skills, partly detached from consumer capitalism, raised small livestock, and gardened to produce healthy organic food. For decades they have worked with others in the region to protect against the military-industrial complex’s environment degradation. This community has organized successfully against naval sonar testing, war games, corporate water theft, and nuclear reactor plans. Dialogues with younger women demonstrate that the sense of progressive community in Mendocino has thrived, benefitting from activism across generations since the commune’s dissolution. The film would pair well with readings about feminist organizing in the 1970s-1980s, intentional communities, or more broadly works on sustainability and environmentalism through appropriate technology, owner-built housing, organic growing, and more humane livestock practices.

Women On The Land also could be a starting point for environmental and food ethics discussions.

For more information:

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CATCH OF THE DAY, October 22, 2017

Bartolomei, Birdsall, Chrobar

CHRISTOPHER BARTOLOMEI, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.

NICHOLE BIRDSALL, Ukiah. Domestic battery.

WILLIAM CHROBAR JR., Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.

Duncan, Elliott, Grant

SHANICE DUNCAN, Willits. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.

ALICIA ELLIOTT, Ukiah. Concealed dirk-dagger, resisting, probation revocation. (Frequent flyer.)

CLEVON GRANT, Bronx/Ukiah. Failure to appear.

Jacinto, Juszczak, Knight

GLADIMIR JACINTO, Talmage. Unspecified offense.

JEREMIAH JUSZCZAK, Redwood Valley. Probation revocation.

ALLEN KNIGHT, Ukiah. Possession/purchase for sale narcotic controlled substance, sale of organic drug, DUI-alcohol-drugs.

Lopez, Martinez, Maxfield

RUBEN LOPEZ JR., Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.

JORGE MARTINEZ, Willits. Domestic battery, probation revocation.

JUSTIN MAXFIELD, Willits. Paraphernalia, probation revocation.

Napoli, Parker, Swearinger

DOMINIC NAPOLI, Willits. DUI-drugs, controlled substance.

MICHAEL PARKER, Ukiah. Petty theft, resisting, probation revocation.

FELIX SWEARINGER, Covelo. DUI, suspended license.

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Dear Editor,

I’m an old guy, and I’m just waiting for someone or something to snuff out the last candle flickering in the cellar of my soul.

Ken Ellis, New Bedford, Massachussetts

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From The Onion:

Man In Center of Political Spectrum Under Impression He Is Less Obnoxious

Mt. Vernon, Oh — Loudly explaining to anyone within earshot that both the left and right were ruining the level of discourse in this country, Jesse Levin, a man firmly in the center of the political spectrum, is under the impression that he is less obnoxious than those with more partisan viewpoints, sources reported Friday. “We’re never going to get anywhere in this country if you lunatics keep foaming at the mouth about some one-sided fantasyland,” said Levin, 32, who despite characterizing those who do not stand precisely equidistant between two ideological extremes as “raving fanatics” and repeatedly interrupting people before they can fully explain their “nutjob” beliefs, reportedly seems to think he is, in fact, much more civil. “If you idiots stopped throwing temper tantrums every time some little thing doesn’t pass your precious purity test and came back down to the real, complicated world with the rest of us, we’d all be a lot better off.” At press time, Levin was butting in on a lively social media debate to tell two total strangers that they were “everything that’s wrong with this country.”

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by Evan Sernoffsky

One fire started near a patch of oak trees along a twisting mountain road east of Napa Valley’s famed Silverado Trail. One ignited near a weathered one-lane road through a wooded canyon in Glen Ellen. Another started near a winery in the hills west of downtown Napa. Still another exploded on a hillside among vineyards and historic homes on the edge of Calistoga.

Each of the four now-infamous fires in Napa and Sonoma counties — the Atlas, the Nuns, the Partrick and the Tubbs — spread catastrophically, as did other blazes in Mendocino and Yuba counties. Together, they delivered a horrific toll of death and destruction that spread many miles from where flames first kicked up.

But the points of origin are critically important. With the danger from the fires finally ebbing, teams of investigators have been gathering at these places to sift through blackened soil and debris, inspect scorched trees, talk to those who first reported seeing flames as well as other witnesses, and lay down evidence markers, hoping to piece together the story of how a disaster began.

The areas represent suspected ignition points — at least for now — as identified by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

While that agency and independent experts said it’s too early to speculate on possible causes, the four locations did exhibit some common features: Power lines ran near all of them, and at two locations, downed electric and telecommunications lines and broken tree branches had been surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape.

However, there was no clear indication of what brought lines down at any of the sites. Officials with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which is responsible for making sure trees are trimmed with at least 4 feet of clearance from its standard electrical distribution lines, said it was premature to comment on the possible cause of the fires, but said the utility company is cooperating with the investigation as it finishes restoring service to customers.

“We’re in the early days,” said Keith Stephens, a PG&E spokesman. “The fire is still burning in places. We’re focused on getting people back up and running right now.”

Cal Fire said nearly a dozen significant fires, including the Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns and Partrick, broke out around Wine Country and beyond on the night of Sunday, Oct. 8, when wind gusts hit hurricane levels. Several small fires kicked up the following morning and in subsequent days. By the middle of that week, firefighters were battling 25 separate blazes around the region, said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean.

In all, this month’s blazes have killed at least 42 people, destroyed an estimated 8,400 structures, burned through nearly 400 square miles of land and prompted 100,000 people to evacuate.

“There are several investigations going,” McLean said. “Our investigators are meticulous and thorough. We want to find that cause. The public depends on us to do our job.”

Veteran wildland fire investigators said drawing conclusions about causes this soon after a fire would be misguided.

“You have to look at all the other potential causes,” said U.S. Forest Service Special Agent in Charge Kent Delbon, who oversees investigations in the Rocky Mountain Region and is not involved with the California fires. “Like with everything, you want to get it perfect. You want every potential investigative lead followed.

“What we do is start with the big picture,” he said. “We walk the outskirts of the fire and start to look at all the other potential indicators. Were there railroad tracks, power lines, a dozer nearby?”

There is no singular or even dominant cause of California wildfires, according to a Cal Fire report on the more than 3,200 ignitions counted in state jurisdiction in 2015, the latest year available. Debris burning accounted for 14 percent of fires and was followed by lightning, electrical systems like power lines, arson, vehicles and sparks from equipment like lawn mowers.

At each of the suspected origin sites for the four worst fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, investigators placed small yellow, red and blue stake flags mapping burn patterns, as surveyors took measurements.

They were, experts said, likely looking at key indicators such as how fire burns against pine needles, grass and trees, and whether the flames were advancing or backing up. The idea is to vector backward and locate a general origin location, before isolating a specific origin site perhaps 20 square feet or smaller, Delbon said. Investigators then start the detail work, sifting though dirt for cigarette butts or other incendiary items.

Power lines, like the ones laying amid burned branches and grass at some of the suspected origin points in Napa and Sonoma counties, can start fires in a variety of ways, experts said. Wind can blow trees or branches into the lines, causing sparks as they’re dragged to the ground. Investigators would look for char marks on the lines or branches, and search for evidence like pieces of melted metal from the wires that could have fallen from above.

PG&E said that anytime a tree or anything else causes a disruption to the electrical system, the company documents the incident in an electronic report that is submitted to regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission. The information is valuable to fire investigators, who will often subpoena such records to help determine whether power lines might have sparked a fire.

Ray McLain, 80, was about to take a shower in his home on Atlas Peak Road, a few miles northeast of downtown Napa, when the power cut out around 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 8. Moments later, he said, the lights flickered on and everything seemed to be back to normal. He took his shower and got in bed, forgetting the outage as he drifted off.

But minutes later, he and his wife were peeling out of their driveway as a wall of flames advanced on their home. His stucco house and vineyard remarkably survived, but many of his neighbor’s homes didn’t. The Atlas Fire would go on to kill six people, burn more than 51,000 acres and ruin at least 741 homes, wineries and other structures in Napa and Solano counties.

As McLain and his wife fled that night, they looked across the street at the home of 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his wife Sara Rippey, 98, engulfed in fire. The couple didn’t survive.

“I thought, ‘Poor Sara and Charlie,’” McLain said in an interview on his property.

As he spoke, investigators 5 miles up Atlas Peak Road were focused on a small area along the road marked off with yellow tape, reading, “Crime scene do not cross.” They wouldn’t identify themselves, but they asked a reporter and photographer to give them space and not disturb the scene, which was well north of the still-evacuated Silverado Resort and Spa on the isolated road that runs roughly parallel to the Silverado Trail.

“We’re investigating the cause of the fire,” one said.

They were looking closely at a line of oak trees whose branches extended through overhead utility lines on the west side of the road, less than a quarter mile south of a sprawling ranch on the plateau of the Napa peak. A twisted, fallen wire lay on the ground, surrounded by stake flags. A broken oak branch precariously dangled overhead among the wires and other branches.

PG&E crews have been scrambling in recent days to replace more than 1,500 damaged power poles and lines inside the many burn areas since the fires ravaged their equipment. The company’s crews on Atlas Peak, though, were kept away from the investigation scene, and worked farther up and down the road to replace equipment.

Even though Cal Fire hasn’t said anything about the cause of the Atlas Fire, residents like McLain are coming to their own conclusions.

“It was very, very strong and gusty that night,” he said. “I think a tree branch broke and landed on a power line.”

Tubbs Fire

Paul Block owns and operates Wine Barrel Furniture on the east side of Highway 128 to the northwest of downtown Calistoga, near where the Tubbs Fire sparked around 9:45 p.m. that Sunday. Hearing the fire’s roar, he looked north out beyond a vineyard across from his shop and saw a hillside along nearby Bennett Lane engulfed in fire.

“Everything was flicking orange, and flames were 40 to 50 feet high,” recalled Block, 49. “I heard a transformer explode in the fire. It looked like a firework.”

Pushed by high winds, the Tubbs Fire would race more than 15 miles to the west, all the way into northern Santa Rosa, where it leveled whole neighborhoods while jumping Highway 101. The blaze, the most destructive in modern state history, killed 22 people, burned down an estimated 5,300 homes, businesses and other buildings, and forced the evacuation of two hospitals.

Back in Calistoga, investigators had the hillside taped off on a recent day as they walked the grounds of several properties. At least one home had been destroyed. Stake flags were set up in a clearing on the scorched hill, but access to the investigators’ work farther up the hill was blocked by authorities.

Less than a mile down Bennett Lane, Bruno Solari said he saw the fire burning the same hillside in its early moments.

“The wind was howling,” he said. “There were some of the strongest winds I’ve ever felt. It was blowing sand and pebbles and small stones.”

Several homes around his burned, he said, when the fire doubled back in his direction the morning after it began. His historic home, built in 1880, was spared.

“We just got extremely lucky,” he said.

Nuns Fire

The suspected origin point of the Nuns Fire, which has been linked to the deaths of a person in Sonoma County as well as a water-truck driver who crashed while on duty in Napa County, is less than a half mile northeast of Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, up run-down Nuns Canyon Road.

There, investigators were looking at a small patch of land along the heavily wooded road near the Relais Du Soleil ranch-style inn.

Next door was the shop of Burning Man sculptor Bryan Tedrick, which was flattened. A massive, partially completed metal horse reared defiantly from the heap of debris.

Across from Tedrick’s shop, over a wooden bridge crossing Calabazas Creek, investigators took photos of burned tree branches and what appeared to be a downed power line marked as evidence. Farther up the one-lane route, overhead wires crisscrossed through a canopy of thick trees before ending at a snapped-off, unburned wooden utility pole that lay over the creekbed.

Alexa Wood’s family owns Beltane Ranch on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, about a quarter mile away. Her daughter called 911, she said, when the two of them saw flames creeping up the back of their property around 10 p.m. that Sunday. The following two hours were a blur as the family battled to save their ranch, which mostly survived thanks to their quick work and help from arriving firefighters.

“It was absolutely crazy,” Wood said in an interview at the ranch, which was built in 1892. “The sparks were thicker than any snowstorm you’ve seen. They were flying parallel to the ground. Piles of dried horse manure were igniting like little bombs. Boom, boom, boom.”

Wood’s son, 35-year-old Alex Benward, grabbed a vineyard tractor and plowed firebreaks while other family members bailed water from horse troughs to douse flames. The historic home on the property, which the family runs as a bed and breakfast, was filled with guests, and Benward put two couples in his 1972 Ford Bronco, instructing them to drive to safety.

Remarkably, only a couple of small outbuildings on the property burned. No animals died. But whole neighborhoods to the west, along Warm Springs Road, were wiped out. The Nuns Fire prompted the evacuations of several communities and joined up with other, smaller fires to become a sprawling blaze covering more than 56,000 acres.

Partrick Fire

Late that Sunday, as wildfires burned around the North Bay in an unfolding disaster, members of the Fontanella family thought they were safe at their picturesque winery property on the south slope of Mount Veeder along rural Partrick Road in Napa County, between the cities of Napa and Sonoma and north of the winemaking area called Carneros.

Co-owner Karen Fontanella was in Boston, while her husband, Jeff Fontanella, stayed at home with one of their sons. They later told her the story of the fire’s first spread at about 11:50 p.m.

“The lights started to flicker and then the lights when out,” she said. “The (electric) gate wouldn’t open, and when my husband looked out back, there were flames.”

The estate’s vineyards survived after the fire scorched 65 of the family’s 80 acres as it tore south, then doubled back toward the mountain. The inferno burned for days, leveling homes along Napa Road covering more than 10,000 acres on its way to merging with the Nuns Fire to the northwest.

The Chronicle couldn’t access the spot where the investigation was occurring, because it was on private property and wasn’t visible from the road. But on a recent day, Cal Fire investigators looked at downed power lines behind the Fontanella property, where the family first saw the fire, Karen Fontanella said.

Chris Sarley, who has a ranch to the north of the winery where he keeps alpacas, sheep, donkeys, llamas and a variety of dogs, said he heard the fire started when a tree hit power lines near the Fontanella estate. Firefighters used his sprawling property as a staging area as they drew water from his pond to fight the flames through the first morning.

“I watched the ridge burn all night,” Sarley said. “It was a big event.”

(SF Chronicle)

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CALIFORNIA'S DEADLIEST WILDFIRES were decades in the making. “We have forgotten what we need to do to prevent it.”

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“The planet is on its way to becoming a hostile environment”

“Green, …And when was it not?’

The biosphere has been more or less favourable to the development of our species (and of agriculture to feed us) for thousands of years, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

During human history, there have always been storms, floods, wildfires and earthquakes – in certain places. However, the current pattern of global warming is changing the atmosphere and the oceans in ways that make our continued survival much more precarious and we have done that to ourselves. Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense, likewise floods. I am not from the US, but I have in-laws in New York State, living right beside the Hudson. Their house has the date 1834 on it. It’s still there – for now – but the 2012 floods finally saw all their neighbours’ houses condemned and demolished. Nobody will be building there again.

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WARFARE AND TOURISM are less often linked than they should be. For my father, as for so many of his fellow soldiers, this was his first chance to experience the continuous cascade of new sensations that drenches the stranger who sets foot for the first time in a foreign country: the exotic morning smell of baking bread from the boulangerie as it mingles with the smoke of Gauloises and Gitanes; the surprising styles of architecture, shop fronts and street furniture; the unfamiliar dress; the non-stop mental arithmetic as one translates prices into francs into pounds, shillings and pence — everything, in its strangeness, insists on attention being paid all at once. The soldier is a tourist, not just in every moment he has to himself but in all the other moments when he's meant to be concentrating on something else. How many have died because they became distracted by an oddly coloured bird, a zigzag moulding around the doorway of a nearby church, a woman wearing a burqa, the impenetrable calligraphy of a foreign road sign.

— Jonathan Raban (LRB, “Belt, Boots and Spurs” — on his father's flight to Dunkirk)

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Mendocino Strong Together is the theme of a fundraiser planned by local community members on Saturday, November 4 from 4:00 pm until 10:00 pm at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds. Mendocino Strong Together is a chance to change the lives of the survivors of the Redwood Complex Fire. There will be delicious food, talented entertainers, a silent auction and an exciting live auction... and most of all, a time to gather with our friends and neighbors as a community to begin the rebuilding phase of the terrible fire losses in Redwood and Potter Valleys. Every dollar collected at this event will go to a deserving family or business in need.

The event includes tri-tip and taco dinner, a stellar silent auction with music during these festivities by Alex DeGrassi, Margie Rice, Spencer Brewer, Ed Reinhart, Train Singer Greg Schindel and others, and a one of a kind ‘Only in Mendocino’ live auction hosted by Tom Allman. After dinner dance party music will be with Waylon and the Wildcats and the Johnny Young Band.

Tickets are available at all Mendo Mill locations, Mendocino Book Co, Chavez Market in Ukiah, JD Redhouse in Willits, and Geigers Market in Laytonville. They are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Children under five are free.

Auction items are needed for the Grand Local Auction of Great Items. Contact Lana Eberhard at 467-1018 at the Mendocino College Foundation to donate. Auction donations may be dropped off at the 1000 Hensley Creek Road from 9:00 am-12:00 and 1:00-4:00 pm. Deadline is November 1 at 4:00 pm.

Financial donations to support Mendocino Strong Together may be made at any branch of the Savings Bank of Mendocino County. All donations are going directly to those in need, are tax deductible and are being managed without a fee by North Coast Opportunities. Anyone who was displaced or is in need of assistance may go to the Local Assistance Center at Mendocino College and find information on many kinds of assistance from state and local agencies, including quick relief from NCO.

More information and updates are available at the Mendocino Strong Together Facebook page and

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