The year the nation noticed us


The year the nation noticed us

All in all, 2012 was a newsy year in Southwest Colorado, with the region grabbing headlines across the country on more than one occasion.

First lady Michelle Obama visited as part of a contentious election campaign; a fire in Montezuma County stirred still-vivid memories of the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire; an Archuleta County landmark became a national one; and a couple of personal crises riveted public attention.

Here are two lists of top stories – the first rated 1 to 10 based on online readership, and the second an unrated list chosen by The Durango Herald editorial staff.

Most-read online

1. Sydney Spies, an 18-year-old Durango High School student, drew international attention when her choice of a racy photo for the yearbook was rejected.

Sydney and her mother, Denise “Miki” Spies, 45, appeared on the “Today Show” in New York City, and then the teenager landed a bit role in a SyFy channel movie called “American Horror House.”

Attention didn’t end there. In August, Sydney and her mother were arrested when a party at their Durango home got out of hand. Sydney was suspected of obstructing a police officer, and mom was arrested on a similar charge as well as for resisting arrest and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The teen now is living in California, and her mother has moved to Grand Junction.

2. Dylan Redwine, 13, was on a court-ordered visit to his father’s house in Vallecito during the Thanksgiving break when he vanished.

Dylan arrived in Durango on Nov. 18 from Colorado Springs, where he lives with his mother, Elaine Redwine, and brother, Cory, 21. Elaine Redwine divorced Mark Redwine in 2007.

Mark Redwine said he last saw Dylan the next morning (the boy was still asleep when he left to run errands, he said). He called police after he was unable to find the teen upon his return. A friend of Dylan’s from Bayfield, where he had attended school before moving to Colorado Springs in the summer, said Dylan had failed to show for a planned meeting that morning.

La Plata County Sheriff’s investigators and emergency teams walked the area, searched the same terrain with dogs and put boats equipped with sonar on Vallecito Reservoir in search of Dylan. Community members numbering in the hundreds joined the search.

All efforts have been in vain. A $20,000 reward is being offered for information leading to Dylan’s whereabouts.

3. A 15-day wildfire in Montezuma County known as the Weber Fire burned 10,000 acres, forced the evacuation of 140 homes, put 390 homes on pre-evacuation notice and caused more than $5 million in damage.

A juvenile, accused of using a lighter to torch a pile of leaves and underbrush he gathered in Weber Canyon, has been charged. The fire started June 22 about six miles south of Mancos.

The wildfire, which stirred memories of the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire that spread over 72,000 acres, wasn’t the only blaze this fire season.

In all, the U.S. Forest Service spent $11 million fighting wildfires in San Juan National Forest this year. About 39,000 acres burned.

4. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a Colorado stage-race that attracts top international riders, brought fame but not the anticipated fortune to Durango, which was the starting point for the second year of competition.

Riders covered 683 miles over mountain passes, three of which topped 12,000 feet elevation before crossing the finish line in Denver.

City officials and supporters were led to believe that up to 25,000 big-spending spectators would fill hotels, eat out and buy souvenirs during the lead-up to the race. In preparation, the city spent $45,000 directly, and supporters raised $500,000.

But barely half the expected crowd, if that, turned up.

Bicycle-crazed Durango, which was snubbed as a stage destination in the inaugural 2011 Pro Challenge, decided to sit out next year’s race.

5. An explosion early June 26 at a large BP gas-compression station near Gem Village killed one contract worker and seriously injured two other contract workers.

The blast, which occurred during a routine maintenance operation, shut down the compression station, BP’s largest in La Plata County.

BP brought in an internal investigation team to determine the cause of the explosion. BP spokeswoman Julie Levy said it turned out that a pressurized device sent through pipelines to collect data about the integrity of a pipe was overpressurized, causing a “mechanical burst,” not a flammable explosion.

6. A four-part series in the Herald carried interviews with returning military personnel, looking at their experiences and the challenges they face as civilians.

An early paragraph summed up their poignant accounts: “Some carry regrets. Some carry pride. Some carry medals. Some carry ghosts. Many carry all these things.”

However, it was one particular account, that of a local man claiming to have served in the Special Forces, that received the most views. The story went viral on military blogs after knowledgeable sources identified inaccuracies in Timothy Oliver’s story. Oliver ultimately acknowledged he had no documentation to prove he ever served in the military.

7. The 10th anniversary of the Missionary Ridge Fire, which swept over 72,000 acres and destroyed nearly 50 houses around Vallecito, was marked in the Herald with a four-day series.

The stories traced the course of the fire, captured memories of residents who were burned out and those whose homes survived, recounted the only fatality of the fire – an Oregon firefighter struck by a falling tree – and explained official firefighting policies that allowed overgrown forests to set the stage for disaster.

8. The death of 5-year-old Kimber Michelle Brown from an accidental overdose of cold medications shook the community.

Kimber, the daughter of Mike Brown and Raelyn Anderson-Brown, died Feb. 12 in Hermosa. Then-La Plata County Coroner Carol Huser ruled the death accidental.

9. Four people – all in their late teens or early 20s – were killed and three others injured in a head-on collision on County Road 318 about one-half mile east of U.S. Highway 550.

A Chevy Suburban was eastbound in its own lane when a Ford Focus, registered out of Trinidad, crossed the center line and hit the Suburban. The four people in the Focus were killed.

Colorado State Patrol investigators think the Focus was passing another vehicle.

10. Lightning ignited tinder-dry vegetation July 22 about one mile southwest of Animas Air Park, triggering pre-evacuation notices to 146 residents in Trappers Crossing and areas northwest of the fire and shutting down at least one gas well pad.

The fire crossed a ridge and headed toward Lake Nighthorse, a reservoir built by the Bureau of Reclamation, before being controlled Aug. 2.

Herald staff list

Herald news staff picked four of the most-read online stories among their top 10. But they thought six others were significant, too. They are, in no ranked order:

The election of Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt, both Democrats, to the La Plata County Board of Commissioners by margins of victory that barely topped 50 percent.

Westendorff defeated Harry Baxstrom for the open seat of termed-out Wally White, and Lachelt squeaked by Republican incumbent Kellie Hotter, who was appointed to commissioner in 2005 and then won outright in 2008. La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee Parker said the county hadn’t seen a race as close as the Lachelt-Hotter race in 20 years.

A year of sparring between Mercury Payment Systems and the Durango Mall ended in June with a settlement that allowed Mercury to proceed with an office complex for its more than 700 employees and other commercial tenants on property just south of the mall.

A propane tank leak Feb. 21 caused an explosion that injured three members of a family and demolished their home on County Road 243 north of Lemon Reservoir.

Injured were Tim and Karen Kelley and their daughter Cameron, 9. All survived.

A propane company serviceman who had been alerted to a possible leak by the Kelleys, pulled Cameron from the debris, and Upper Pine Fire Protection District crew members found the parents under 4 to 6 feet of rubble.

Rocko, the family dog, was rescued from the demolished house 16 hours after the explosion, and Tippi, a 4-year-old cat, was found alive 17 days later.

In September, President Obama exercised his prerogative under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Chimney Rock Archeological Area a national monument. The state’s U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Scott Tipton were early supporters of the action.

Anthropologists believe the 4,726-acre site west of Pagosa Springs was inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans from about A.D. 850 to A.D. 1130.

Every 18.6 years, the moon, at the northern point in its orbit, rises between the park’s iconic twin spires.

Michelle Obama wowed a large contingent of students and other supporters when she spoke Oct. 9 at Whalen Gymnasium at Fort Lewis College. The visit was part of a two-day swing through Colorado to stump for her husband.

“We can’t turn back now,” she told the crowd while promoting what President Barack Obama had accomplished in health care, job creation and financial aid for students as well as ending the war in Iraq and signing the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan followed about two weeks later, also speaking at Whalen gym. He appeared with Speaker of the House John Boehner and Rep. Scott Tipton just weeks before the election. Tipton went on to beat challenger Sal Pace by a comfortable margin, but the Mitt Romney/Ryan ticket was not so lucky.

Plastic bags were the source of much consternation throughout 2012. A task force was formed to discuss ways to reduce their use. Among the recommendations considered were either banning stores from providing them or imposing a tax on them.

No official action on any option has been taken. The Durango City Council directed staff members to research a policy charging consumers at large grocery stores 10 cents per plastic or paper bag. The policy proposal is expected to come before the council this spring.

Most-read online

1. Sydney Spies ignites controversy with yearbook photo, January

2. Dylan Redwine, 13, disappears during visit, November

3. Weber Fire burns 10,000 acres near Mancos, June

4. USA Pro Cycling Challenge starts in Durango, August

5. BP explosion kills 1 and injures 2, June

6. Herald runs series on local veter- ans returning home, July

7. Missionary Ridge Fire, 10 years later, June

8. Kimber Brown, 5, dies, February

9. Four die in head-on crash near Bondad, June

10. Fire breaks out near air park, July

The year the nation noticed us

Flames from the Weber Fire are seen encroaching on a house in the Elks Springs Ranch subdivision south of U.S. Highway 160. The fire, which started June 22 and lasted 15 days, caused $5 million in damage.
This photo of Sydney Spies, taken by Thru the Lens Photography and provided by her mother, Miki Spies, was rejected for inclusion in the Durango High School Yearbook. Spies’ story was the most-read story on The Durango Herald website in 2012.
Dylan Redwine
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