Charlottesville Breaking News

Ragged cost: Wildfire tally nears quarter-million mark

As the criminal trial nears, tallies of suppression costs and property losses have begun in the so-called Ragged Mountain Fire, and the price-tag appears to have neared the quarter-million-dollar mark, including nearly $50,000 to extinguish the sprawling conflagration. Meanwhile, the late February blaze scorched 609 acres of terrain, according to an official with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

"We confirmed it with GPS," says David Powell, an assistant regional forester, who notes that an earlier estimate of over 800 acres included "initial containment lines" that were wider than what actually burned.

This fire– which began on a wind-whipped Saturday in a financially troubled subdivision– cost the Forestry Department $9,940, a figure that includes only the time and fuel expended for Department-mustered workers and equipment, not the efforts of the myriad other fire companies that pitched in.

If the cost– at $16 an acre– seems a little low, indeed it's less than one quarter of the $72 per acre five-year average the Department cites.

"We don't bill for investigative time or for education," explains Powell, "We only bill for actual time spent putting it out."

At the Ragged Mountain fire, which began under ...

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Short story winner: 'A Small Brown Box'

I don’t know why I’ve even bothered telling this story again– principals, officers, magistrates. They’ve finally given me a lawyer, but it looks like he’s on their side. Everyone’s on their side. I never had a chance. That’s how it’s been every day since I first walked through the doors of that building. No one cared how I felt, what I was good at. Just follow the rules and do what you’re told. I wish now that I had done what I really wanted to when I had the chance. I’m going to end up paying for it anyway. I can’t believe he’s still talking– I have to interrupt.

“Stop! You have no idea why this happened. I shouldn’t be here. I know that’s what they all say, but this is different, I swear.” I don’t know what else to say to him, he doesn’t understand.

“But the gun was in your possession, in your hands, pointed at him. According to witnesses you had personal problems with him, and you argued with each other every day.”

I see the contempt in his face when he says this. So I try again to make him see my side.

“This is all a mistake. I wasn’t going to shoot anyone. It’s just like every other day; I have no control over what happens in there. The bell rings and we start, the bell rings and we end. I can’t even go to the bathroom unless it fits into the schedule, and this is no different. My side of the story doesn’t matter at all.”

“So you were frustrated, you’d had all that you...

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Plotting Along: Contest winners pack a punch with their fiction

"I had the twist ending in mind about the teacher," explains 2011 Hook Short Story Contest winner and high school teacher Steven Turner. "Maybe in some Freudian way, this was a little insight on the idea of the powerlessness teachers feel sometimes."

To win the acclaim of best-selling author John Grisham, Turner used unique elements of perspective and plot. So did the other two winners.

"I like my stories to be about things that aren't quite as they seem," says third place winner Gary Kessler.

And as it turns out (and as was the case in the 2010 contest also), two of the three winners let the competition serve as the springboard for their imagination– writing their very first fiction specifically for The Hook.

"Charlottesville is for writers," says Kessler– and with the entries for The Hook's Short Story Contest again at its highest number ever (150 entries in both 2010 and 2011) he seems to be absolutely right.

The contest, now in its 10th year, drew participants from all levels of experience– seasoned writers involved in local writing clubs, UVA MFA graduates, and first-time fiction writers.

With stories inspired by snowstorms, antique cars, or relationships, the contest drew on the diverse talents of Charlottesville's writing community. But the winners circle wowed the heart of Judge Grisham with sympathetic characters, fast-paced plots, and innovative narrative techniques.


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Funding fight: Brown, Shadyac spar over Haven

News that the Haven homeless day shelter is seeking $45,000 in city funds to help cover next year's operating expenses has sparked dueling emails between outspoken downtown businessman Mark Brown and the Haven's patron saint, blockbuster film director Tom Shadyac.

"The Haven's numbers speak for themselves," writes Main Street Arena owner Brown March 16 in an early morning email to Haven administrators, city councilors, and Shadyac, criticizing the nonprofit for inefficiency in programs and alleging a failure to work with the downtown community.

On all fronts, Brown claims, the day shelter is failing– and he uses statistics to make his case. Using numbers given in a March 16 NBC29 news report, such as an annual operating budget of about $385,000 and 46 jobs found, Brown calculates that the Haven spends nearly $10,000 per job.

He applies similar analysis– appearing to divide the entire monthly budget by each category– to other areas. With 19 Haven guests finding homes, that's a Brown-calculated cost of $23,640 per find. With 24 guests entering substance abuse counseling, that's a Brown-estimated cost of about $18,715 per referral.

"We could send them all to the Betty Ford Clinic for that amount," says Brown.

At the same time, Brown says, since the Have...

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Nuclear nightmare: Could a Japan happen here?

The disaster in Japan sparked by the massive undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11 is a terrifying reminder of nature's fury. But the natural disaster may pale in comparison to the toll wrought by potential meltdowns at several of Japan's nuclear power stations. Could disaster strike at the Dominion North Anna Power Plant in nearby Louisa?

That seems to depend on who you ask.

Actual earthquake damage to North Anna is not likely, according to UVA Geology professor Thomas Biggs, who notes that while Virginia does lie atop several faults, none seem likely to spawn major quakes. In fact, he says, the several small earthquakes in the past decades– including two in 2003– have remained under 4.0 on the Richter Scale. That's enough to rattle but certainly not topple houses– or nuclear reactors.

"All of our faults are pretty old," says Biggs, noting that while there are some along the Atlantic Coast that are "mildly active," but not anything like the places that have recently suffered major earthquakes.

"We don't have the tectonic setting they have in Japan, Chile, New Zealand," says Biggs, noting that California, due to its position atop two tectonic plates sliding side by side, remains at highest risk for major temblors.

Even if a massive quake did somehow tri...

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