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Economy's Shadow

What would you consider the top story of the first decade of the 21st century?

Though there's some disagreement on just when this decade ends, it is true that today is the last day of 2000-2009, a period for which even the Oxford English Dictionary has no name.

Readers in an informal Mail Tribune online poll chose what is foremost on everyone's minds — the recession — as the biggest story since the year 2000 began, followed closely by a helicopter crash in 2008 that killed seven Grayback Forestry workers from Southern Oregon.

Here are 10 stories that garnered the most votes from readers who were asked to choose the five most important stories of the past 10 years:

1. Recession hits home. Jackson County companies shutter, hundreds lose their jobs and more than 1,700 homes are foreclosed on since the recession begins in December 2007. Unemployment tops 13.9 percent in March 2009. Also in the last year, Panel Products and Boise Cascade shut down their plywood plants in White City and Rogue River, respectively. In the retail sector, Joe's and Circuit City close, and General Growth Properties Inc., owner of the Rogue Valley Mall, files for bankruptcy protection.

2. Helicopter crash among worst in U.S. history. Nine people die in a helicopter crash on Aug. 5, 2008, at the Iron 44 Complex wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, seven of them Grayback Forestry Inc. workers from Southern Oregon. The crash is believed to be the deadliest firefighting air disaster in U.S. history. A tribute on Aug. 15 draws some 3,500 people to the Jackson County Expo in Central Point.

3. Libraries close — and then reopen. Stung by the loss of more than $20 million in federal funding, Jackson County closes all 15 of its libraries on April 6, 2007, the largest closure ever of a U.S. public library system. A levy that would have returned service fails in May. Doors reopen starting Oct. 24 when a private company contracting with the county begins running libraries with reduced hours.

4. Biscuit fire burns 500,000 acres. The year 2002 brings the Summer of Fire, starting with a massive wildfire sparked by lightning on July 13. The Biscuit fire burns through 500,000 acres of southwestern Oregon, costing more than $150 million to put out. That and other wildfires prompt an Aug. 22 visit by then-President George W. Bush, the first such visit of a sitting president to the region in about 20 years. Cold Springs Packing Co. warehouse in Medford is destroyed in a suspicious fire Aug. 27, and two days later, Eagle Point Middle School is destroyed by an electrical fire that begins in one of the gymnasiums.

5. The Kim family lost on remote road to coast. Bay Area residents James and Kati Kim and their two young daughters take a wrong turn driving between Portland and Gold Beach Nov. 25, 2006, and become lost in a web of remote rural roads off Bear Camp Road just as a winter storm sweeps in. After a week in which they use all the gas in their Saab to stay warm and burn the car's tires, James Kim sets off to find help, but perishes of hypothermia. About 100 searchers, including helicopters hired by Kim's father, comb the area on the ground and in the air. A private helicopter spots Kati at the car Dec. 4 and she and the girls are rescued. The body of James Kim is recovered Dec. 6. The Kims' tragedy garners national news coverage, better signs along Bear Camp Road and more cooperation among agencies in search and rescue operations straddling multiple counties.

6. Jackson County's response to 9/11. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have a profound impact on the nation, including the Rogue Valley. Across Jackson County, stores shut down and strangers swap stories of sadness and vulnerability that some, such as Medford resident Albert Green, say they had never felt here before. "This isn't supposed to happen in America," Green says. "We're supposed to be the strongest country in the world, and I'm trying to remind myself of that right now."

7. Medford couple target of hate crime. In May 2006, vandals target a Medford couple, burning "KKK" into their lawn and pouring gasoline on the street in front of their home. A federal grand jury in July indicts two for the crimes. The community rallies around the couple, bringing them cards, presents and food. A local landscaper offers to repair the damage for free. The outpouring is followed by rallies in Medford and a community forum brainstorming ideas on how to prevent and respond to hate crimes.

8. Savage Rapids Dam is breached. Considered one of the worst wild-fish impediments in Oregon, the 88-year-old dam on the Rogue River at the Josephine/Jackson county line is breached Oct. 9, 2009, in a $39.3 million project 21 years in the making.

9. St. Mary's students quarantined. Five dozen students from St. Mary's School in Medford spend most of a three-week educational visit to China in July 2009 inside their hotel rooms after being quarantined because of the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu. The students are treated well, however, and make national news as the World Health Organization declares the virus a global pandemic.

10. Teen car crash kills two, sparks investigations. A fatal February 2005 crash in downtown Medford involving Ashland teen Kevan Thatcher-Stephens causes a ripple effect, touching some of the county's highest-ranking officials. A lengthy investigation leads police to the Ashland home of then-Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Orf, who declines to cooperate with detectives. Police reports suggest Thatcher-Stephens had been drinking at the Orf home during the week leading up to the Feb. 11 crash. Yet investigators cannot determine whether he consumed alcohol there before driving from Ashland to Medford and wrecking his Jeep Cherokee at the intersection of Jackson Street and Riverside Avenue at about 9:32 p.m. An initial test showed the 17-year-old's blood-alcohol content was about .16 percent when his Jeep smashed into a Chevrolet Blazer driven by Charles Ashley Bench of Shady Cove. Bench, 26, was killed, and his passenger, Mark Louis Robustelli, 27, was seriously injured. The high-speed police pursuit of Thatcher-Stephens along Riverside involved the Jackson County Sheriff's Department's then-second-in-command, Capt. Joe Puckett. Immediately following the crash, Puckett was placed on administrative leave, and he resigned four months later. Police reports indicated Puckett prematurely left the collision scene with an unauthorized female passenger.

Joshua Berger of Medford takes his job search to the corner of Delta Waters Road and Highway 62 in March. File photo - Jim Craven