Top stories of 2021 | Part Two

by Colleen Smith, Sienna Boucher and Diane Craig

Staff report

At the end of the year, we take a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. This is part two. We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.

8. Fire chief given vote of no confidence

The International Association of Firefighters Local 3911 released a “Vote of No Confidence” in Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Williams on Sept. 14.

In the vote, all eight members of the union, aside from one who is on probation, unanimously agreed. The statement read, “Concerns regarding Mr. Williams’ competence and integrity for the job of Chief have been known without resolute action for too long. Our fire department culture is now toxic and the Chief’s job performance is negatively impacting members’ health, daily operations, volunteer response and the quality of emergency services on Orcas Island.”

In October, the San Juan County Paramedic and Firefighter Association, IAFF Local 3911, released a statement that read, “The paramedics and firefighters of IAFF Local 3911 call on the Board of Fire Commissioners to facilitate an independent investigation, led by a mutually acceptable investigator, regarding the complaints made about OIFR Chief Williams and to report to the public, where allowed or permitted by law, the findings, and proposed actions to resolve these complaints.”

In November, Chief Williams released the following statement:

“First and foremost, I will say the members of Orcas Island Fire and Rescue appreciate all of you and your support. As you explore the field of Emergency Services you will find caring people who enjoy being there in your “time of need” and this is what I hear from our volunteers and staff on a continual basis. OIFR is staffed with individuals who truly believe in our motto, Neighbors serving Neighbors.

“I am writing this post to provide you the assurance that, when you dial 911 and the members of OIFR hear their call to action, they will provide you the same quality and fervor of professionalism and service that you already know and rely upon. Even today as we deal with additional weather-related emergencies, I am seeing OIFR members attend to the needs of the island while maintaining our services.

“The fire department is currently working through some internal matters and we will do so professionally and in a manner that does not affect our service to the community. When you need help and dial 911 we will be there for you because that is our goal. This is a brief note to express our commitment to our community that we are here for you.”

9. COVID 2021 recap

It has now been a year since the COVID-19 vaccines came out, changing both the course of the pandemic and political climate of the country. The Sounder has kept the community updated on both statistics along with COVID-related political dilemmas in the community.

Last January, students were still attending school virtually. Things took a turn when elementary students came back to school Jan. 19 under Gov. Jay Inslee’s road map to recovery released on Dec. 16, 2020.

By March 5, 2021, the Health Department had reported that San Juan County had gone two weeks without any new reported cases.

By April, San Juan County was already leading in vaccination rates, while the National Guard came to help, traveling by whale watching boat and school bus.

With vaccination rates up and case numbers declining, by summer the mask mandate was lifted. Smiles were visible in the grocery stores once again.

Then, the Delta variant came into the picture. The county COVID count returned June 18 with 195 total infected individuals. According to the San Juan County Health Department, all the individuals at the time were breakthrough cases of fully vaccinated individuals.

The Health Department released a press release Jul. 22 that stated, “The increase in breakthrough cases around the country, and now locally, is not unexpected. The delta strain of the virus is spreading exponentially in areas where COVID vaccination rates are low.”

The mask mandate came around shielding faces once again on Aug. 14 and has remained since. Despite rising cases, schools opened up once again for the 2021-2022 school year, with sports making a comeback as well. To keep outbreaks at bay, students are required to wear a mask in school, but it is not necessary outdoors or while playing sports.

Teachers were required to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 18. San Juan County schools have not enforced a vaccine requirement for the students, but some highly populated city schools in Washington have.

Now, the Omicron variant has taken the place of the Delta strain and is known to be highly contagious.

The Washington State Department of Health stated that boosters are essential for combating the Omicron variant. Now, anyone five and older is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine supply has continued to increase. Currently, more than 1,245,000 people are fully vaccinated across the state and San Juan County continues to be the most vaccinated county in Washington.

10. Village Green gets a new playground and public shower

An unused corner of the Village Green, formerly home to blackberry bushes and dumpsters, was transformed into a nature-based playground with massive glacial rocks, cedar logs and a custom slide.

The project was initiated by Orcas parents and overseen by the Playground-on-the-Green Committee — Dan Burke, Chuck Greening, Paul Kamin, David Kau, Ken Katz, Zackarya Leck, Mark Mayer, Pete Moe, Margaret Payne and Donna Wuthnow — in partnership with San Juan County Parks, San Juan County Public Works and the Orcas Island Community Foundation.

Planning started in the spring of 2018 and Greening and Greening, LLC broke ground on the playground on Feb. 12, 2020. It opened July 4th weekend. The design was created by Greenworks of Portland, Oregon and mimics what children might find in the woods or on the beach: rocks to climb, logs to scramble and sand to mold. It was built around a decades-old heritage willow tree and also features a sculptural slide, designed and constructed by Zackarya Leck.

Dozens of volunteers donated countless hours to planning, fundraising and execution of the project. Local businesses gave in-kind donations and hundreds of islanders donated money. The total cost was $155,000. Major funding sources included a $55,000 SJC Lodging Tax Grant; $25,000 from two Give Orcas campaigns; $21,500 from Joe Cohen and Martha Farish for the slide; $8,000 from Island Market for the benches built by Mark Mayer; a $5,000 Ginny Lu Woods Legacy Grant for a water fountain and bottle-filling station; a $5,000 anonymous donation for the large platform rock and $2,500 from OICF for landscape trees in honor of its 25th Anniversary. The remainder of the cost was provided by private donations to county parks and OICF.

In early December, San Juan County facilities manager Greg Sawyer unveiled the Village Green’s new restroom and shower facility during a dedication ceremony.

The $280,000 project, which was a renovation of the existing bathroom building, was funded by an LTAC grant and capital improvement money from the county. While the idea dates back a decade ago, construction started this past February. There are four new all-gender bathrooms and a coin-operated handicapped accessible shower. The parks department oversees the maintenance of the Village Green and its buildings. The project was completed by ACI Construction out of Sequim, Wash.

The bathroom doors are electronically controlled and are only open from morning to evening at which point they auto-lock. Orcas deputies have keys to access the restrooms in case of an emergency. The renovation also includes a storage area for supplies and a portion of the roof is “green,” meaning it has soil and sedums planted on it to reduce runoff.

The resource center has been anticipating the unveiling of the new washroom and has towels, soap and quarters available in its office for anyone in need. The shower cost is 25 cents for three minutes of hot water.

11. Moran turns 100; opens new learning center

It was a land donation that launched the entire Washington state parks’ system.

It took Robert Moran more than a decade to get the state on board with his plan, but on June 18, 1921, he signed over 5,424 acres of raw land to be enjoyed for generations to come. In honor of Moran State Park’s 100th birthday and the grand opening of the new interpretive center, a special celebration was held at the summit of Mt. Constitution in June.

Those in attendance included State Parks Commission Chair Mike Latimer, State Representatives Alex Ramel and Debra Lekanoff, Exhibit Development Coordinator Sam Wotipka, State Parks Director Peter Mayer, Friends of Moran president Sandi Talt, local Moran historian Christopher Peacock, San Juan County Council Members Jamie Stephens and Christine Minney, County Manager Mike Thomas and Becky Burns, the great-granddaughter of Robert Moran.

Originally from New York, Moran arrived in Seattle in 1875 with just a dime to his name. He became a ship engineer and worked on several of John Muir’s Alaska expeditions. His brothers later joined him in Seattle, where they launched a ship repair business that grew to become one of the largest employers in the area. In 1904, after receiving a diagnosis of only a few years to live, Moran purchased 7,000 acres on Orcas. He built his grand retirement home, which is now the Rosario Resort mansion. Free from the pressures of his career and breathing fresh island air, Moran lived until 1943.

Moran’s friendship with Muir inspired him to donate parklands to the state. But in 1910, when he first broached the subject, there wasn’t an entity in place to accept the acreage. After successfully lobbying for the formation of a parks’ board, Moran was rejected yet again after the land was deemed too big to manage. In 1920, his donation was finally accepted but the governor dragged his feet on signing the paperwork. By 1921, a new governing entity was formed — the state parks committee — which finally approved the resolution to accept the deed. From 1933-1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to build roads, infrastructure and trails in Moran State Park. It was the longest-running project in the program’s history.

The Friends of Moran group was instrumental in the construction of the new visitors’ center at Mt. Constitution. FOM was founded in 1997 and is one of the oldest nonprofit groups in the parks system. The organization, led entirely by volunteers, has given $100,000 to Moran in the past few years.

FOM runs the Summit Gift Shop, which moved into the new building. Construction on the facility began in June 2020 led by Rolf Eriksen and Carla Stanley. Fallen trees from a major storm in the winter of 2019 were milled by West Sound Lumber Company and used in the new construction.

12. Richard Donner dies

One Hollywood director who was happy to call Orcas Island home was Richard Donner. He passed away July 5, 2021. Not only did he make a mark in the movie industry, but he impacted the island and its furry friends as well.

Donner was born in the Bronx, New York, on April 24, 1930. His influential career started in 1961 after directing the film “X-15.” He got his big break in 1968 after filming “Salt and Pepper” where he scored some big names of the time: Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford.

Many may be familiar with the classic cult horror film “The Omen,” which was released in 1976, also directed by Donner. From there he went on to direct famous films “Lethal Weapon,” “The Goonies,” and “Superman.”

Upon meeting his soon-to-be wife Lauren Donner on set filming “Ladyhawk,” they continued to work on films together. Eventually they got married and later found themselves filming a movie in Tacoma. That was when they decided take a trip out to the San Juans. They fell in love with the natural beauty along with the charisma of the community.

The Donners, being animal lovers, saw the island’s need for a shelter. They helped the community reach this goal by raising money through big premieres that happened in the tiny Sea View Theatre, bringing the Orcas Animal Protection Society to life.

The island walked away with not only an animal shelter, but fun stories from the process, including Donner frantically flying in a never-before-seen roll of film by helicopter to the island last minute before a premier.

“He always had a laugh,” said Lauren Donner. “Even in the hospital, he had jokes for the nurses and doctors at the very end. Those are just some of the reasons I loved him.”

13. Dwight Lewis convicted of destroying BLM signs

A Lopez Island man who said he attempted to destroy a Black Lives Matter memorial in retaliation for repeated vandalization done to his Trump 2020 sign was found guilty of two counts in San Juan County District Court.

Laverne Dwight Lewis, Jr., 79, was found guilty of one count of reckless endangerment and one count of malicious mischief in the third degree on Sept. 13. He was found not guilty of one count of reckless endangerment. Lewis was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

“I’m destroying these signs because I’m tired of it being shoved down my throat,” Lewis said in a video posted to Youtube after being charged. “You liberals destroyed my Trump sign and I’m going to teach them not to mess with Dwight Lewis.”

San Juan County deputies originally suggested Lewis be charged with two counts of assault in the second degree; two counts of reckless endangerment; one count of malicious mischief in the third degree; and one count of harassment. He was ultimately tried for only two counts of reckless endangerment and one count of malicious mischief.

The trial lasted for five days, including juror selection. Lewis was represented by Friday Harbor attorney Robert Bulloch. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Teresa Barnett represented the state. Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock oversaw the trial.

The charges stem from an Aug. 12, 2020 incident on Fisherman Bay Road near Lopez Village. On that date, deputies responded to a report of malicious mischief in progress in the 1900 block of Fisherman Bay Road, where a series of Black Lives Matter memorial signs had been located since late June. The memorial was previously vandalized in late June, but no one was charged with a crime.

Organizers created the signs in solidarity with the #SayHerName campaign, which launched in December 2014. The campaign’s goal is to bring awareness to the names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police, the organizers explained. It has since expanded to #SayTheirNames to encompass the names of the hundreds of unarmed Black, Indigenous and People of Color who have died due to police brutality and white supremacy.

Over the night of Aug. 12, 2020, the remaining signs were mowed down by an unknown culprit which led to the decision to form a group to discuss the ceremonious removal of the signs.

Responding deputies say they saw Lewis near a truck with the name of his company — Windsock Farms — on the side of the memorial, along with an orange excavator parked on a trailer. Witnesses told deputies that Lewis had reportedly used his excavator — which was equipped with a flail mower — to destroy several of the signs. When one witness stood in front of the excavator, Lewis allegedly accelerated the machine and extended the running flail mower toward the witness, causing them to move out of the way.

After Lewis reportedly destroyed another sign, an additional witness reportedly slapped the excavator and told Lewis to stop. Lewis then, allegedly, swung the mower toward the second witness and drove toward them for approximately 10-15 feet, causing that witness to also move out of the way. A witness, at the behest of Lewis, captured the interaction on a cellphone video.

14. Animal news: Deer die from disease; orca calf born

In May, the San Juan County Sheriff’s office started getting the calls. With the smell of rotting carcasses on private property, in ravines alongside the roads, deer were dying at a noticeable rate. Throughout the summer, deer on Orcas, San Juan, Blakely, Henry, Lopez and Stuart islands were showing up sick and dead, white foam around their mouths. Initially, fertilizers were thought to be the culprit. After an investigation by the Washington State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, however, it turned out to be a virus — AHD, or Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease.

The disease has no known cure and residents were urged to minimize the spread by not providing food and water to avoid deer collecting in one place.

“Adenoviruses belong to a small group of viruses that can infect a variety of animals, both wild and domestic first identified in California in 1994,” according to WDFW’s website. Signs of infection include rapid or open-mouth breathing; foaming or drooling at the mouth; diarrhea which is sometimes bloody; weakness; and emaciation with fawns being the most affected. There is no known cure or treatment, according to WDFW. The outbreak on the San Juans was the first documented case in Washington since the last outbreak in Goldendale in 2017.

When island weather started to cool down, the virus that killed a recorded 218 deer on Orcas and 112 on San Juan, started to subside. Since mid-November, the Washington State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife had recorded no new AHD-related deer deaths on San Juan Island since early August. The last public report of an AHD-related death was Oct. 2 on Orcas.

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It’s always good news when islanders learn of the appearance of a baby orca. In February, the Center for Whale Research confirmed a new calf – L125 – was born into the Southern resident killer whale community. The calf, the fourth offspring of L86, was determined to be in good health. The new calf has one living sibling, L106 (male), born in 2005. The mother, L86 has given birth to two other calves: L112 and L120, both now deceased. L112 (born in 2009) was killed by blunt force trauma during military exercises in 2012. L120 was born and died in 2014.

L125 is the first calf born into L pod since January 2019 when L77 gave birth to L124.

The last time the Center for Whale Research encountered Southern resident orcas in the Salish Sea was with J and K pod on Jan. 20. CWR’s most recent previous encounter with L pod was Sept. 24, 2020.

In July, earlier news of the new calf was tempered with a sighting of a struggling adult male Southern Resident, K21 by a commercial whale-watching vessel. The whale, also known as Cappuccino, appeared to be in poor body condition, emaciated and with a collapsed dorsal fin, according to a report by the Orcas Behavior Institute.

Reports noted that when K21 was seen on July 28, who, at 35 years old was the oldest male resident orca, was several miles behind the rest of his pod making little progress attempting to swim against the strong currents. Since the end of July, and with no further sightings of the Southern Resident male, orca scientist Monika Wieland Shields of the Orca Behavior Institute declared the iconic whale deceased.