Top stories of the decade

Posted 12/31/09

New Year's Eve came and went without any problems related to computers, clocks or other technology, recalled Mike Conners, Park County's chief information officer.

“It ended up being a pretty smooth affair,” Conners said this week, …

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Top stories of the decade


'00 Y2K: AnticlimacticFears of Y2K faded like fireworks as the new century began without the worldwide technological breakdown officials had prepared for over the previous several years.In Powell and Park County, officials gathered in emergency operations centers on Dec. 31, 1999, to see whether computers would be able to operate correctly in the year 2000. For years, fears had circulated that computers programmed to operate using two-digit numbers for years would not transition to a year numbered “00.”

New Year's Eve came and went without any problems related to computers, clocks or other technology, recalled Mike Conners, Park County's chief information officer.

“It ended up being a pretty smooth affair,” Conners said this week, remembering the months of planning — including software upgrades and patches, rewriting custom software county officials used then, and meetings that hashed out details such as how to handle coincidental emergencies.

“We really didn't know if something was going to go wrong or not,” Conners said.

Nothing did.


Accused Powell murderer found in Colorado

Chon Ascension Gonzales Pena — accused of killing his wife, Yensena “Jesse” Gonzales Mancha Fierro, and her brother, Manuel Alonzo Mancha Fierro, near Powell in 1996 — was found in a Colorado jail in March 2001.

After the murders, Gonzales fled the area and eventually was arrested on unrelated drug charges and sentenced to 10 years in a Colorado prison. He was being held under a different name and had attempted to alter his fingerprints and face.

In September 2002 he was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for the murders.


The Merc opens

The Merc opened in downtown Powell in April 2002, thanks to community efforts to raise capital through the sale of stock.

The store replaced Stage, which had gone out of business, leaving the community without a clothing store.

The new store filled a big hole on Bent Street and provided residents with a convenient place to shop. Other communities, including Worland and Torrington, have used Powell's model to establish similar stores.


Powell mourns Shane Childers

Therrel “Shane” Childers, 30, became one of the first two combat casualties of the war in Iraq on March 21, 2003. He was fatally shot as he led his men on an assault on an oil pumping station in southern Iraq.

He was the son of Powell residents Joseph and Judy Childers, who were vacationing in Texas when they received word of his death. His parents remembered Shane as a perfectionist, a take-charge kind of a guy, who “was born to be a Marine.”


Bridger Hall burns down

March 30, 2004 will be remembered forever like a nightmare when Northwest College students and staff witnessed Bridger Hall's death by a fire.

When the smoke finally settled the next day, all that remained of the residence hall was a shell of blackened bricks and charred windows, resembling cavities of despair.

Still, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new dorm, Simpson Hall, was built in 2006, using $4.4 million in insurance money.

Best of all, human tragedy was averted. No students or staff were harmed. When locals recall the fire, they also recall the efforts of volunteers who helped the displaced students and the outpouring of donations from the community.


DCI offices set ablaze

Two Powell teenagers, reportedly upset with a recent methamphetamine bust, set fire to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation's local office on Aug. 27, 2005.

The gasoline- and diesel-fueled blaze badly damaged the Fitch Building east of Powell, where the division offices were housed.

Joshua Rosenberger and Levi Sherley later were found guilty of arson, while Kevin K. Callen Sr. was convicted of aiding and abetting the crime. Prosecutors said Callen had encouraged the youths to start the fire in order to destroy evidence being held against him and his son in pending meth-related cases.

The fire led Gov. Dave Freudenthal to recommend that DCI move its office to Cody, but after an outpouring of support from the Powell community, the governor and the state attorney general's office reversed course. The DCI still is located in the Fitch Building.


Hells Angels storm Park County

Around 1,500 Hells Angels members convened in Cody for their 2006 World Run. The July event also attracted a large number of law enforcement officers — more than 150.

Months before the event, Gov. Dave Freudenthal allocated up to $500,000 in drug forfeiture funds from the state attorney general's office to bring in additional law enforcement to Cody for the rally.

Other than the constant roar of motorcycles, the event was a relatively quiet one — only seven identified Hells Angels members were arrested in Park County by the week's end.

Powell family grows by four overnight

A Powell couple became a family of six on April 27, 2006.

That's the day that John and Karlyn (Bjornestad) Brence welcomed quadruplets Emma LuAnn, Kathryn Marie, Charlee Ray and Baylee Joe, who were born in a Denver hospital. After several months of specialized care in hospitals in Denver and Billings, the Brences brought their babies home late that summer. They continue to live in Powell, where John farms with Karlyn's father, Lyle Bjornestad.

The quads were “spontaneous,” meaning they were conceived without fertility drugs. Before their birth, doctors told the Brences the chance of giving birth to spontaneous quadruplets was about one in 571,000 births. They were born about 12 weeks premature.

The Brence quads will turn 4 in April.


Super 8 fiery catastrophe

The Super 8 Motel was gutted by fire Oct. 27, 2007, leaving one victim dead.

In the early morning hours, a false dawn was bred when clouds of smoke and fire billowed from the motel entry like massive waves of black and red-hot lava.

While the fire wrought tragedy, it also highlighted the heroic efforts of first responders and illustrated Powell's ability to pull together to come to the aid of those in need.

Although the interior of the motel was severely burned, the motel was rebuilt and back in business by June 2008.


Gunbarrel Fire burns in memory

With 68,149 acres charred along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, the Gunbarrel Fire kept firefighters and helicopters hopping from July to early October 2008.

The fire cost taxpayers $11.2 million while a small battalion of firefighters kept the blaze at bay. Although vacant Sweetwater Lodge was leveled, no other structures were lost, nor were there any serious injuries resulting from the lightning-ignited flames.

There were days of thick smoke rolling down the North Fork, making homeowners just west of the national forest boundary anxious.

However, for the most part, the fire seemed to concentrate itself in isolated strongholds of beetle-killed pine trees like flaming kitchen matches strewn by a giant in the rugged hills above the highway.


Powell is wired — fiber to the premises

A Powell Digital City project model that would use high-speed communications was presented in 1996. Thirteen years later, in 2009, the idea came to fruition with Powellink. The fiber-to-the-home venture took years to plan, fund and complete.

The $4.9 million bond project was a joint venture between the city of Powell and the Northwest Joint Powers Board, along with a number of private-sector partners.

Since the network's January completion, TCT West has paid to rent the infrastructure and provide Internet, phone and television service to households and businesses that choose to sign up for Powellink.

TCT has exclusive rights to Powellink for the first six years, but by January 2015, the system will be open to competitors as well.

Freezing temps crush hopes of record beet harvest

“Sept. 1st was a wonderful time to be a sugar beet farmer.”

So said Fred Hopkin, who raises beets east of Powell on the Penrose, speaking of the expected high — even record — 2009 crop of Big Horn Basin beets.

An early dig began for some growers in late September, and the official harvest started Oct. 2. But growers could only watch and wait as cold weather locked down over the Basin the weekend of Oct. 9-12. Freezing temperatures and snow damaged beets and other crops, including beans.

Western Sugar growers began digging under allotments, and relatively good weather through November helped prolong the dig, although bad weather interrupted the harvest several times. The harvest officially ended Dec. 4 with about 30 percent of the crop still in the ground.

At year's end, crop insurance claims were in progress. Gov. Dave Freudenthal declared a natural disaster and forwarded a petition for damage claims to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was expected to act in early 2010.

First National Bank sold to Glacier Bancorp

After several months of regulatory issues brought on by the national economic crisis, First National Bank and Trust was sold to Montana-based Glacier Bancorp.

The $17.5 million merger agreement was announced in early 2009.