J17, K25 and L84 (Dave Ellifrit/contributed photo)

J17, K25 and L84 (Dave Ellifrit/contributed photo)

Top stories of 2019 | Part II

  • Thu Jan 2nd, 2020 9:57am
  • News

No. 9

Another black bear on Orcas

In May, as spring love filled the air, a young male black bear, most likely searching for a lady friend, found its way to the San Juan Islands. It is common for bears to search for mates this time of year, said Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologist Ruth Milner. She suspected, she said, this bear had gotten turned around during his quest.

The bear was first sighted on Camano Island before swimming across multiple bodies of water and ending up on Orcas. This was the second year in a row a black bear was found on Orcas, though Milner does not believe this is the sign of a new trend. Bears, wolves and cougars, according to Milner, once lived in San Juan County, and black bears, with their strong swimming abilities, are still occasionally spotted in the islands.

From Orcas, the bear swam to Shaw Island. Ferry workers later spotted the animal swimming across the channel to San Juan Island. It was spotted frolicking with a fox in one homeowner’s backyard, shuffling off into the bushes on Beaverton Valley Road, and seen lumbering down False Bay Road. After at least a week, the animal swam to Lopez.

San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs stated there had not been reports of the bear being aggressive or causing damage though it did take down several bird feeders.

The black bear continued its island-hopping adventure — swimming to Guemes Island. Toward the end of May, a young male black bear was caught by Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife agents outside of Home Depot in Burlington, Washington. Based on its markings, it is believed by fish and wildlife officers, according to their press release, to have been the same animal sighted in the San Juans. The bear was released into the Cascades in an undisclosed location. With luck, in its new home, the bear finally found the mate it had been swimming for so long to find.

No. 10

Former Lopez principal accused of sexual harassment

Eight Lopez residents filed a tort claim and a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission against former Lopez Island High School Principal David Sather in mid-September. They claim that Sather propositioned female staff and said sexually inappropriate things to and about several women, both of whom were employees and parents, among other accusations.

Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee work for Cedar Law PLLC, a Seattle-based education firm. The duo represents the six women and two men who approached the firm in June, a month after attempting to resolve their complaints with the school board, McMinimee said.

Sather was accused of propositioning female staff; making sexual gestures; making sexual comments; sending sexually explicit messages, texts or emails; engaging in stalking behavior; rifling through individuals’ personal effects; and preventing the claimants from being able to do their job or advancing in their employment,” claimant attorneys wrote in a Sept. 6, press release. McMinimee added that her firm has heard from approximately 60 people about Sather’s alleged misconduct.

In February, Sather applied for a teaching position in the school district and voluntarily vacated his principal position at the end of the school year, according to school board chairperson John Helding. Sather was set to teach high school social studies and history but is now on administrative leave, according to Lopez Island School District’s school board.

Sather is being represented by Tyler Firkins of Van Siclen Stocks Firkins of Auburn, Washington.

Sather began working for the Lopez Island School District in 2013 after he was let go from a school in Mosier, Oregon, where the superintendent said that his leaving was “what is best for Mosier School,” according to a story published in The Dalles Chronicle.

On Lopez, he was the assistant principal and was then promoted to principal of the secondary school. In 2017, Sather was investigated by the school district on claims of sexual harassment after he began a relationship with an employee.

In a letter to Lopez Island School parents dated Sept. 3, 2017, the school board wrote it had concluded an investigation into potential sexual harassment by Sather. The board added that it had commissioned a third-party investigation that concluded Sather had partaken in inappropriate “conversation, bantering, and joking that included sexual content.” Because conversations of an explicit nature are not allowed in the workplace per school district policy, the board said that it was taking formal action.

As of Dec. 17, the school’s third-party investigation into the latest allegations against Sather has yet to conclude, McMinimee said, the board hopes to have it completed in January.

No. 11

Elwha false-alarm bomb threat

At 1:30 p.m. on July 1, a cryptic sticky note containing the word “bomb” and numbers and days of the week stuck to the mirror in the women’s restroom on the Elwha prompted an investigation by the state bomb squad. For the most part, people were concerned about how long it might take for the ferry to resume service.

The U.S. Coast Guard determined the vessel should be tied to the Friday Harbor dock and all personnel evacuated. All ferry service in and out of Friday Harbor was shut down awaiting the arrival of the Washington State Patrol Bomb Squad, which flew in by helicopter to the Port of Friday Harbor. At 5:30 p.m., Deer Harbor Charters took Orcas Islanders home from Friday Harbor at no cost.

With the help of bomb disposal teams from the King County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard, a K-9 bomb detection unit went aboard the vessel. At 6:30 p.m., the Elwha was determined to be clear of any explosive hazards, and by 7 p.m. ferry services had resumed.

At the time of writing this recap, it was unclear whether or not the Washington State Patrol ever conducted an investigation regarding the sticky note. San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs recalled that “they reviewed the security footage and that was the end of if. They weren’t able to identify anything.”

No. 12

Judge Stewart Andrew retires

After 20 years on the bench, San Juan County District Court Judge Stewart Andrew retired in January.

Andrew was first elected in 1998. Back then, roughly 3,000 fewer people lived in the county and district court had one only computer. He had been living in the islands for about a decade before he decided to run for office thanks to advice from a district court administrator.

Andrew graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1972 and served as an officer aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships during the 1970s. He received his Juris Doctorate in 1980 from the School of Law at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Admitted to the California Bar in 1980, he worked as an assistant city attorney in Livermore and San Rafael, California, until 1985.

Admitted to the Washington Bar in 1984, he moved to Orcas Island in 1985 where he maintained a private law practice with offices in Eastsound until his election to the District Court bench in 1998. He was re-elected to that position until retirement.

Andrew’s wife’s name is Cindy and together they have one daughter, Alissa.

In 2010, while running for re-election, Andrew said his accomplishments while in office included the establishment of a Probation Department in the District Court, helping to reduce repeat offenses; the creation of a streamlined Pay or Appear Program for defendants with financial obligations to the court, allowing expanded community service opportunities; and the implementation of a program to help defendants regain their driver’s licenses after having been suspended.

No. 13

Update on the orca

Activists and scientists say that things are looking increasingly more dire for the Southern resident orcas. This year three orcas — Princess Angeline, J17; Scoter, K25; and Nyssa, L84 — all died. Government agencies continue to work on solutions, while citizens continue to speak out and take action.

The Southern residents consist of three pods: J, K and L. They were named residents because — until recently — these orcas tend to spend their time in the Salish Sea. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, when the Southern resident declined 16 percent in just eight years — dropping from 98 to 82 whales from 1995-2003 — the agency listed the unique species of cetaceans as endangered in 2005.

Researchers believe the animals are starving because their primary food source, Chinook salmon, is also endangered. Overfishing, pollution and dams all threaten the salmons’ chances for survival, say scientists. As a result, this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requested collaboration with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the governing body that creates fishing season regulations from California to Washington.

“We are taking many actions to conserve and recover Southern resident killer whales and particularly to address the three main threats including prey limitation; vessel traffic and noise; and chemical contaminants. Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, are important to SRKW survival and recovery,” NOAA regional director Barry Thom wrote in a letter dated March 6, addressed to Phil Anderson, chair of the council.

Some grocery stores have stopped selling Chinook, and a few restaurants have taken the endangered fish off their menus. Many individuals have turned to other more abundant salmon species in hopes of helping preserve both orca and fish alike.

In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order establishing a task force to examine all the complex issues the whales face —lack of prey, noise and pollution. The panel was tasked with coming up with recommendations to help the endangered animals. That task force continued to meet for two years and suggested numerous actions the government could take to assist in the Southern residents’ salvation.

Meanwhile, nearly 15 years have passed since being declared endangered, and the Southern residents have continued to decline. Currently, the three pods consist of a total of 73 members. The three deaths this year represent another four percent decline bringing the population to the lowest in approximately 30 years. Researchers noted that orcas are spending significantly less time in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands and more time in areas where they have a better chance of finding fish.

No. 14

Update on the ferries

Twenty-nineteen was another eventful year for Washington State Ferries, but locally and as a state agency.

The Hyak retired at the end of June, after having been allowed to run one more year by Legislature in 2018. WSF completed its long-range plan in 2019, which stated that the Anacortes-San Juan route will receive a new, internationally-certified vessel in 2028. By that time, most of the vessels currently servicing the islands will be retired along with the Hyak, including the Tillikum, Kaleetan, Yakima and Elwha.

The Elwha received $25 million worth of steelwork on its deck in 2018, only to be pulled again in fall because of additional work needed. WSF announced it did not have the funds to complete the project so it is seeking additional resources.

The Washington Transportation Commission voted to raise the fares for routes by 2.5 percent in October 2019 and again in 2020.

In October, WSF announced plans to contribute to a program named the Whale Report Alert System. This application allows commercial mariners to receive alerts regarding a whale’s real-time location. This allows captains to reduce speed to minimize vessel noise or avoid collision by changing course.

In November, WSF said it received $35 million from a nationwide Volkswagen settlement to support converting three of the fleet’s largest ferries — the Jumbo Mark II — from diesel to hybrid-power. The settlement resolves violations of the federal Clean Air Act after VW installed illegal software that cheated emissions tests on many of its diesel vehicles.

The ferry system is the largest consumer of diesel fuel in the state with over 18 million gallons of diesel burned each year, and the three Jumbo Mark II ferries account for 26 percent of total fuel consumption. This step brings the state ferry system closer to meeting the goals outlined in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Executive Order 18-01, which directs WSF to move toward a zero-emissions fleet.

With the $30 car tab initiative passing in November, and the subsequent litigation against it, many in the ferry-served communities are worried about what this could mean for the organization’s future.

“We do not yet have the answers to how that initiative will affect the ferries budget or transportation budget at a whole,” said Amy Scarton, head of the Washington State Ferries, adding that as soon as WSF does know, it will report to the public the related effects. “Right now, it’s business as usual.”

No. 15

Deadly rabbit disease

Once a common sight in the San Juans, European rabbits were erased from the islands’ landscape this past year. A case of rabbit hemorrhagic disease was confirmed in a domestic rabbit on Orcas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in July.

According to The Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University, RHD is a highly contagious viral disease found in both domestic and wild rabbits. Once the virus strikes a population, most — if not all — rabbits exposed to the virus will die. The first known outbreak was documented in 1984 and spread through Angora rabbits in China imported from Europe. After nine months, the disease killed a total of 14 million domestic rabbits. The virus is not harmful to humans.

In April 2018, 66 rabbits housed at a no-kill animal shelter in Richmond, British Columbia, were euthanized because the disease spread to it via two feral rabbits that died on the property. A representative of the shelter told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the facility had quarantined the rabbits and ordered the RHD vaccine — which is illegal in the United States — but the vaccine did not arrive in time.

European rabbits were introduced to the islands more than a century ago.

Islands to the north and west of San Juan Island already had established rabbit populations that were suspected to have been introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1800s, said Leo King Couch in a November 1929 publication of the Journal of Mammalogy.

No. 16

Friday Harbor High Schoolers win international space design competition

The Friday Harbor High Aerospace Team won the International Space Settlement Design Competition in July. Held at Kennedy Space Center, the local team joined ranks with other high school students to bring home the award.

For two months over the winter of 2018-19, the team, comprised of more than 30 students, worked to write a 40-page proposal of a space settlement capable of capturing and adjusting the orbit of an asteroid.

In May, the team received results from the qualifying round and were notified it was selected to continue on to the World Finals.

“This is the second year in a row our aerospace team has made it to the world finals. This says much about the quality of our students as well as the dedication of our teacher, Dan Garner. Congratulations to all,” high school principal Fred Woods said.

Team engineers were tasked with designing electronic arms for the capture of the asteroid; safety features like thick radiation protection for the residents; creating an open vacuum storage area for easy shipping and receiving; and efficient magnetic connections between the rotating and nonrotating parts of the station, among other issues.

The design team needed to consider the human aspects of the station. The layout for housing needed to be comfortable, so the students created entertainment options; they also took into consideration the inhabitants’ safety, like ensuring there were enough spacesuits for everyone. They also designed the settlement to have a homey, comfortable feeling. To give the layout an open feel, for example, areas with long lines of sight were created.

The total cost of the station was $13.8 trillion.

At the World Finals, the Friday Harbor students were part of a team of 60 students — named Rockdonnell — that also included teams from India; Canada; Uruguay; and the United States. The competition was a 42-hour design challenge to propose the future construction, operations and maintenance for a settlement of 16,000 on the far side of the lunar surface. Rockdonnell elected a number of Friday Harbor students to leadership positions. Notably, Arlo Harold (class of 2020) was elected to be Vice President of Engineering; Joely Loucks (2019) was elected the head of Automations Design; Brandon Payne (2019) was elected head of Operations; and Lucy Urbach (2019) took the post of Systems Engineer.

No. 17

Office supply store burns down

Office Supplies Plus was a total loss following a fire that began when a motorhome parked next to it backfired setting both it and the building ablaze on March 7.

San Juan Island Fire and Rescue Chief Norvin Collins said, “This was an aggressive fire. It was fueled by the burning vehicle and the propane tank immediately adjacent to the structure. Once we were sure all occupants were safely out of the building, our goal was to contain the fire to the structure as fast as possible and to ensure the safety of everyone on the scene.”

An employee and a customer in the building quickly and safely evacuated. One individual, who had been working on the recreation vehicle when it caught fire, was taken to Peace Health Island Medical Center for minor injuries, where they were treated and released.

Wind conditions and materials within the structure made the efforts to completely extinguish the fire complicated and extended the time crews needed on the scene. The fire response was an all-hands event requiring multiple crews and the department’s logistics team. Chief Collins said, “It is always a sad day to see people’s lives and a business impacted by a fire. We are very grateful for the support of our community during this event. We are especially grateful for the great work and support of our emergency response partners – San Juan EMS; San Juan County Sheriff; Town of Friday Harbor; Port of Friday Harbor; Orcas Power and Light Cooperative; and two propane companies for your response and assistance. The fast response and offers of assistance during emergencies demonstrates that we are all in this together.”