The past year will forever be remembered for the once-in- a-generation wildfires that have permanently altered the region. Epic rains that formed one of the year’s bookends fed vegetation that fueled the fires at the other end of the calendar.
In between natural disasters, Petalumans experienced a busy year that was overshadowed by national politics. Local activists representing many issues, including women’s rights, immigration, treatment of LGBT people, healthcare advocacy and climate science, became engaged as a reaction to last year’s presidential election.
Last year’s election also brought to the fore the promise of legal recreational cannabis in California, and cities across the state crafted local marijuana policies. After much debate, Petaluma settled on a middle path, approving some industries while banning cannabis dispensaries.
The biggest transportation story of the year was the launch of SMART, the North Bay’s commuter rail network. The $600 million system began service in August, carrying passengers from Santa Rosa to San Rafael with a stop in Petaluma. Meanwhile, local transportation officials planned to spend new revenue from a state gas tax increase on projects including Highway 101 widening, upgrades to Highway 37 and local street repairs.
The region continued to be gripped by a housing shortage, which was amplified by the October fires. Few new housing projects were approved in Petaluma this year, but several developments already in the pipeline broke ground, promising to increase the city’s housing stock in the future.
Two venerable Petaluma institutions — Petaluma Valley Hospital and Petaluma Valley Athletic club — underwent transitions this past year. The hospital continued moving toward a new operator while the health club abruptly closed, angering many longtime members.
Public employees were in the news this year. A union representing most teachers in Petaluma bargained for a new contract, even staging a work stoppage. The city’s police department hired a female deputy chief, the highest ranking woman in the department, while one of the only former female firefighters settled a harassment lawsuit with the city.
Also in the public safety sector, Petaluma experienced its first murder in three years when Cristian Nunez-Castro was stabbed to death in September outside of a bar on Kentucky street. The case vexed police for two months until they arrested suspect Bryan Webster in November.
In sports, the year saw the return of the Egg Bowl crosstown football rivalry game for the first time since 2011. Also this year, Casa Grande High School abruptly fired beloved football coach Trent Herzog, to the dismay of players and boosters.
In food news, several new restaurants opened in Petaluma, including The Block food truck pavilion, further cementing the city’s reputation as a foodie hotspot. The local craft beer industry took a hit when Petaluma Hills Brewery closed, but former Petaluma beer startup HenHouse Brewing Company announced plans to return its incubator. The year ended on a high note with Petaluma Gap winegrowers receiving long awaited federal recognition.
After several years of drought, the year began with much needed rains. Storms that brought the wettest January on record also downed power lines and flooded streets and some houses on the upper Petaluma River. More ominously, the rains fed an explosion of vegetation growth.
By the end of a hot, arid summer, the flora had become a dangerous mass of dry kindling just waiting for a spark. That came on the night of Oct. 8, when high winds fanned wildfires that scorched through parts of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, sending thousands of evacuees fleeing into Petaluma. The two largest Sonoma County fires, the Tubbs and Nuns fires, burned more than 90,000 acres and destroyed nearly 5,000 houses.