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UNI ROTC to honor local Gold Star family at Panthers game

CEDAR FALLS — A fallen soldier will be honored at Saturday’s Panther football game by the University of Northern Iowa’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“We’re recognizing Brian Gienau, who graduated from the program a few years back and was killed in action,” said Lt. Col Mike Harris, UNI professor of military science. “We’re starting with an open house and inviting local veterans in.”

Gienau, of Tripoli and an Iowa Army National Guard second lieutenant, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2005.

The ROTC will also host a tailgate with free food for veterans and active service members.

“The university’s giving two free tickets per veteran,” Harris said. “During the game we’re going honor the Gold Star Family, the Gienau family, on the field.”

The UNI ROTC also will display America’s colors in a big way.

“This game we plan on unfurling a giant flag,” Harris said. “It’s this huge flag, almost two-thirds the size of a basketball court.”

ROTC cadets will hold the flag on the field in a belated Veterans Day celebration.

“We can’t do it on Veterans Day because there are so many other Veterans Day things going on,” Harris said. “This is our way of honoring veterans.”

Harris encourages veterans and others to attend and recognize Gienau and his family.

The event will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“We’re going to set some stuff up in the gym so we don’t have to go outside and deal with the weather,” Harris said.

The food will be grilled behind West Gym and brought in.

“The National Guard will be there and involved,” Harris said.

Members of the local military recruiting stations will have a rock climbing wall during the tailgate event.

Every cadet who graduates from the ROTC program will serve in the military. Harris wants those cadets to interact with veterans.

“I look it as a way of paying it forward,” Harris said. “Someday they will be a veteran, so it gives them exposure to veterans and what they can look forward to.”

Voters question process in testy exchange at Winneshiek County courthouse

DECORAH — Residents packed the Winneshiek County Courthouse annex Tuesday for the Board of Supervisors’ canvass of last week’s general election to express indignation that 31 absentee ballots received after Election Day won’t be counted because they were not postmarked.

The votes were cast in Iowa House District 55, where incumbent Michael Bergan, a Republican, had just a seven-vote lead over Democratic challenger Kayla Koether, 6,919 to 6,912. In Winneshiek County Koether received 4,694 votes to Bergan’s 4,102 votes. Bergan led Koether in Fayette and Clayton counties.

Auditor Ben Steines issued a press release in response to questions circulating through social media, emails and phone calls about the status of those ballots. He said the county had no choice in the matter.

“This is not a choice of the Board of Supervisors, this is not the choice of the auditor, this is state law,” Steines stated.

Resident Cerrisa Snethen said voters were not aware the post office might not postmark their absentee ballots.

Absentee ballots postmarked Monday, Nov. 5, the day before the election and received before the election canvass were counted.

Steines said Iowa Code allows two methods for determining whether a late ballot was mailed before the election. One is the “intelligent mail barcode system” that prints a unique barcode on ballot return envelopes before they are sent to voters. Winneshiek County does not have that system.

The other method is for the ballot return envelope to be postmarked on the day before the election or earlier.

Snethen said the Decorah postmaster told her it would cost the county less to implement the barcode system than the county’s current system.

“We wouldn’t be in this mess (if the county had the barcode system). I think this falls at your feet. You are responsible for this. People are disenfranchised because of this situation,” she told Steines.

Snethen said if she did her job like Steines did his, she would be fired.

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Logsdon said the grilling of Steines was “offensive.”

“You’re telling my auditor, one of the stellar auditors of the state, he should be fired. … You know nothing about what’s going on. How long have you been an auditor honey?” he asked Snethen.

Steines said the barcode system was allowed for the first time this election and is in place in just a few larger counties.

“Most smaller counties don’t have the time or ability to do it,” he said.

Supervisor John Beard said auditors around the state have been sharing their concerns about the postmark requirement with the Iowa Legislature for years.

Any blame “needs to go to the Legislature,” he said.

“Auditors are painfully aware of ballots not counted for lack of a postmark. It’s been a priority for years. They’ve met with chairpeople of the House and Senate committees, but there’s really been no resolution to it,” said Ken Kline, Iowa deputy commissioner of elections, who attended Tuesday’s canvass.

“Unless (the vote) is really close, people don’t care,” he said.

“It used to be all mail was postmarked. Today that’s not the case. It has been a fact of life knowing we cannot count certain ballots simply because they’re missing a postmark,” Kline said.

Steines said he’s aware of a case of a husband and wife who mailed absentee ballots the same day.

“One came with a postmark and one didn’t. One got counted and one didn’t,” Steines said.

One citizen said the “extraordinary circumstances” of the close race between Bergan and Koether and the uncounted ballots should require “extraordinary measures.”

She suggested the people who cast the absentee ballots that weren’t counted be asked under oath when they mailed their ballots.

The auditor will contact the absentee voters whose ballots won’t be counted.

“I know people who are disenfranchised. The system should have been revamped when the auditors were asking (the Legislature) to do it,” Snethen said.

When asked to apologize for his remarks to Snethen, Logsdon said he was sorry if he had offended anyone, “the young lady in particular.”

California town's wildfire evacuation plan raises questions

MAGALIA, Calif. — Ten years ago, as two wildfires advanced on Paradise, residents jumped into their vehicles to flee and got stuck in gridlock. That led authorities to devise a staggered evacuation plan — one that they used when fire came again last week.

But Paradise’s carefully laid plans quickly devolved into a panicked exodus on Nov. 8. Some survivors said that by the time they got warnings, the flames were already extremely close, and they barely escaped with their lives. Others said they received no warnings at all.

Now, with at least 63 people dead and more than 630 unaccounted for in the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century, authorities are facing questions of whether they took the right approach.

It’s also a lesson for other communities across the West that could be threatened as climate change and overgrown forests contribute to longer, more destructive fire seasons.

Reeny Victoria Breevaart, who lives in Magalia, a forested community of 11,000 people north of Paradise, said she couldn’t receive warnings because cellphones weren’t working. She also lost electrical power.

Just over an hour after the first evacuation order was issued at 8 a.m., she said, neighbors came to her door to say: “You have to get out of here.”

Shari Bernacett, who with her husband managed a mobile home park in Paradise where they also lived, received a text ordering an evacuation. “Within minutes the flames were on top of us,” she said.

Bernacett packed two duffel bags while her husband and another neighbor knocked on doors, yelling for people to get out. The couple grabbed their dog and drove through 12-foot flames to escape.

In the aftermath of the disaster, survivors said authorities need to devise a plan to reach residents who can’t get a cellphone signal in the hilly terrain or don’t have cellphones at all.

In his defense, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighborhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that saved some lives.

Honea said he was too busy with the emergency and the recovery of human remains to analyze how the evacuation went. But he said it was a big, chaotic, fast-moving situation, and there weren’t enough law enforcement officers to go out and warn everyone.

“The fact that we have thousands and thousands of people in shelters would clearly indicate that we were able to notify a significant number of people,” the sheriff said.

Meanwhile, a utility facing severe financial pressure amid speculation its equipment may have sparked a deadly Northern California wildfire asked U.S. energy regulators last month for permission to raise its customers’ monthly bills to harden its system against wildfires and deliver a sizable increase in profits to shareholders.

In an October filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. laid out a variety of dangers confronting its transmission lines running through Northern California, saying its system faced a higher risk of wildfires than any other utility.

“The implications of PG&E’s exposure to potential liabilities associated with wildfires are dramatically magnified,” the filing said.

On Thursday, firefighters reported progress in battling the nearly 220-square-mile blaze that displaced 52,000 people and destroyed more than 9,500 homes. It was 40 percent contained, fire officials said.

President Donald Trump plans to travel to California on Saturday to visit victims of the wildfires burning at both ends of the state.

The Paradise fire once again underscored shortcomings in warning systems.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September requiring the development of statewide guidelines for Amber Alert-like warnings.

In 2008, the pair of wildfires that menaced Paradise destroyed 130 homes. No one was seriously hurt, but the chaos highlighted the need for a plan.

Paradise sits on a ridge between two higher hills, with only one main exit out of town. The best solution seemed to be to order evacuations in phases, so people didn’t get trapped.

“Gridlock is always the biggest concern,” said William Stewart, a forestry professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Authorities developed an evacuation plan that split the town of 27,000 into zones and called for a staggered exodus. Paradise even conducted a mock evacuation during a morning commute, turning the main thoroughfare into a one-way street out of town.

Last week, when a wind-whipped fire bore down on the town, the sheriff’s department attempted an orderly, phased evacuation, instead of blasting a cellphone alert over an entire area.

Phil John, chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council, defended the evacuation plan he helped develop. John said that the wildfire this time was exceptionally fast-moving and hot, and that no plan was going to work perfectly.

At the other end of the state, meanwhile, crews continued to gain ground against a blaze of more than 153 square miles that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and other Southern California communities. At least three deaths were reported.


Thomas Nelson / THOMAS NELSON 

Rep. Michael Bergan outside the West Union Library July 20.