In the News -
Friday, march 17, 2006
Woodlake police chief,
bid for sheriff
In non-partisan county politics,
there is probably no more challenging office than that of sheriff-coroner.
When one finally retires and another is elected, he becomes the incumbent
and very tough to beat. Finding qualified opposition, let alone a legitimate
challenger, is always a difficult proposition.
Consider Fresno County, where Jerry Dyer, Fresno’s
police chief, was recently considered as a candidate for consolidation
with the county. As a strategic cost-cutting measure, it was suggested
that Dyer, who is well liked in Fresno, might serve both as city chief
and county sheriff.
That unprecedented proposal never got past the discussion
stage but there is still a lack of viable candidates to serve as Fresno
County’s next sheriff.
That’s not the case in Tulare County now that Woodlake’s current
police chief — John Zapalac — has made the decision to run
against incumbent Bill Wittman.
Zapalac, a veteran of the Tulare County Sheriff’s
Department, knows it will be no easy task to defeat his opponent. Wittman’s
been Tulare County’s sheriff since 1995 and the last one, Bob Wiley
(1967-1991), served long enough that when the new detention center was
dedicated in 1987 it was named for him while he was still in office.
“There were a number of friends and supporters who came to
me and urged me to become a candidate for sheriff,” Chief Zapalac
said. “I really had to reach into my heart to do this. I have no
agenda or axes to grind; just a desire to better serve the underserved
Zapalac realizes it will take an energetic campaign
to beat the incumbent. But he and his supporters are convinced that the
timing is right and Chief Zap, as he is affectionately known in Woodlake,
is the right man for the job.
Zapalac knows all too well what it takes to deal with
adversity and overcome staggering odds. One of four sons of immigrant
Czechoslovakian parents, the future police chief was literally born on
the run in 1950.
“My parents were forced to flee the Communists in Czechoslovakia
in those troubled times, and I was born just after we arrived in Germany,”
Zapalac recalled. “My first memory at age five was after we were
living in Canada when my father died in an industrial accident.”
The family then relocated from French-speaking Quebec
to a German community in Ontario province where his single mom worked
in a children’s hospital for the disabled. In 1964, with the prospect
of greater opportunity, the Zapalac clan moved to Santa Ana in Southern
“Moving there at age 14, I experienced total culture shock,”
Zapalac recalled. “In Canada, we did not see people of color.”
While attending Santa Ana College, John took his first
courses in criminal justice. In 1970, he married, and the couple had two
John became involved as a partner in a wrecking yard business and began
attending the police academy in a part-time program.
By 1978, John was attending the academy full-time.
After graduating number one in his class, he became a duty officer at
the Orange County Jail in downtown Santa Ana.
During these years, the family made vacation trips to camp at Sequoia
“On one of those visits we saw a house on the river near
the Dinely Bridge,” Zapalac recalled. “In 1979, we paid $80,000
for that place and it became our second home.”
The Zapalacs came up nearly every weekend and, in 1981,
John stopped by the sheriff’s office in Visalia for a job application.
“A couple of weeks later, Sheriff Bob Wiley called me personally
to invite me to take a job with Tulare County,” Zapalac said. “It
was less pay but the trade-off was a better living environment where we
already had a house.”
Zapalac worked throughout the 1980s as a patrol officer,
on the SWAT team, as a property detective, and as a sergeant at the new
Bob Wiley Detention Center. In 1989, he worked out of the Orosi substation,
which he described as “very busy” duty.
In the 1990s, he worked the Valley Crimes Unit as a supervisor investigating
violent crimes, child abductions, and more than 200 homicides.
“I really enjoyed those times I was able to serve my neighbors
in Three Rivers and fill in for Kevin [Bohl, the resident deputy],”
In 1997, one of his colleagues suggested he work as
the interim chief in Woodlake. When the city council moved to fill the
position permanently the next year, Zapalac jumped at the chance.
For 16 years, he literally did it all with the Tulare
County Sheriff’s Department, but it has been at Woodlake where Chief
Zap has really been able to make an impact on crime.
“I am a little different than most law officers,” Zapalac
said. “I emphasize spending more time on the front end saving kids
so later they don’t have to be handcuffed. That’s my number
In the last three years, violent juvenile crime in
Woodlake has decreased nine percent. In 2000, Zapalac secured a federal
grant to assign a full-time officer to the area campuses making Woodlake’s
schools among the safest in the county.
But beyond the statistics, Zapalac has several programs
where law officers are proactive in stopping crime before it starts. The
chief is especially proud of his Camp Zap where Woodlake youth enjoy some
quality time at Zapalac’s Lemon Cove ranch.
That program, made possible with community support,
features four annual overnight outings. On these trips, more than 100
Woodlake youth visit the 20-acre property where they play team games,
cook out, camp, and listen to inspirational speakers who have turned their
lives around after some bad choices.
Zapalac’s officers have also become involved
with Woodlake’s family services, targeting child abuse.
“By working with the social workers we can identify the dysfunctional
families,” Zapalac said. “Our involvement has been responsible
for sending five child abusers to prison.
“When I look at what’s going on in the unincorporated
areas of the county, there is a whole lot of room for improvement,”
he continued. “We need comprehensive programs like we have in Woodlake
to deal with the underserved areas.”
Since he remarried five years ago, the chief said he
has the family support to do what it takes to be Tulare County’s
“I am blessed with a fantastic staff who buy into my philosophy,”
he said. “It doesn’t matter if I work in a city or the county.
With me, it’s the personal touch that’s important and letting
the community know we are here to serve.”
The sheriff’s race will be decided during the
Tuesday, June 6, primary election.
The Three Rivers Village Foundation is cruising along
in its efforts to designate Highway 198 from Lake Kaweah to Sequoia National
Park as a state scenic highway. That’s the latest news on the project,
according to Tom Sparks, Foundation president, who this week provided
an update after a recent meeting with key representatives from Tulare
County and Caltrans.
At that meeting, Sparks presented a draft document
entitled “Kaweah Scenic Highway Visual Assessment” for the
review of Supervisor Allen Ishida, county planning staff, and Caltrans.
The document contained a detailed description of the 16.1-mile route that
is being proposed for inclusion in the state program.
The Foundation’s report, compiled by board member
Roy Franson, included an overview and divided the project area into three
segments — Segment 1: Lake Kaweah portion (Road 248 to Three Rivers
entrance), a distance of 7.2 miles; Segment 2: Three Rivers town portion
(town entrance to Dinely Drive), a distance of 5.3 miles; and Segment
3: River Gorge portion (Dinely Drive to the park entrance), a distance
of 3.6 miles.
The report also contains a summary and description
of the assessments as compiled by a volunteer team who helped survey the
“A few years back, this type of work would have been completed
by a Caltrans committee funded by the state,” Sparks said. “That
group was evidently a budget casualty and no longer exists.”
The lack of any paid staff places the burden for doing
these assessments on local volunteer organizations. Sparks said that because
of the efforts mostly of Roy and Linda Franson, the locally-generated
document appears more than adequate to meet the Caltrans requirements.
A paragraph in the Overview section contains the key
elements as to why this portion of highway is clearly eligible for the
“A significant feature contributing to the enjoyment of the
highway is that for its entire length it closely follows around Lake Kaweah
and runs alongside the Kaweah River. Throughout the route the distant
views of what’s ahead creates curiosity and anticipation. Not
to be overlooked is the role of the highway itself. Mostly two lanes with
an occasional passing lane, the roadway’s many curves, rises and
falls in elevation, and the shifting directional views provide a wonderful
stage from which to experience the scope of the Kaweah Scenic Highway.”
Sparks believes the official designation is inevitable,
but there are still some tasks to be completed.
“The next step is to prepare a map and short video of the
route,” Sparks said. “Then officials from Caltrans will come
to Three Rivers and inspect the route to see if they agree with the report’s
assessment of each segment’s visual intrusions.”
None of the segments contain any more than six percent
of major intrusions, well within the parameters for approval. The mapping
information is critical because the maps become the baseline for how county
planners define the corridor that could affect future development within
the established scenic highway boundaries.
“The program does not preclude development but it could impose
some restrictions or conditions,” Sparks said. “Existing development
will be ‘grandfathered’ in.”
Sparks said an upcoming public meeting will detail
all the potential restrictions and benefits of the program including federal
grants for things like placing overhead transmission wires underground.
“Supervisor Ishida is excited about it, Caltrans is enthusiastic,
and the county planners are looking forward to implementing some new guidelines,”
Sparks said. “A scenic highway will really put Three Rivers on the
California tourist map.”
How to intercede
When attending the firefighters’ annual pancake
breakfast tomorrow, take time to say “hello” to the Weed Management
Group volunteers. You’ve heard a lot about them these past several
weeks, so here’s a chance to meet them in person and learn about
the invasive thistles they are working so hard to control.
Several of them will be there from 9 to 11 a.m. with
hands-on displays to help foothills residents identify non-native thistles
and figure out the best approach to reducing the infestations on their
In the meantime, here are responses to the questions
the WMG has been hearing most frequently.
What is the Weed Management Group’s top priority?
Number one is yellow star thistle. It’s nasty when it gets established
and hard to eradicate. Luckily, it’s relatively new to Three Rivers.
Currently, it is concentrated in the triangle between
Old Three Rivers Road, South Fork Drive and Sierra Drive. This is a thistle
that should be able to be managed pretty effectively, especially with
the new spray rig.
Essential to success of the program is cooperation
from the property owners there, and that’s been going very well.
Thistle seems to be everywhere. Can we really get rid
of it? Depends on the thistle. Italian thistle has been here so long,
it’s become part of the landscape.
Just about all of us have it. The best we can do with
Italian thistle is clear it from our houses, barns, paddocks, walking
paths, driveways. That we can do.
Clearing it entirely out of Three Rivers is too much
to ask. Probably not possible.
The story is different with yellow star thistle, though.
This one we can eradicate if we stay on top of it. And once it’s
out, if we remain vigilant, we can keep it out. Same with milk thistle,
another weed we really don’t want getting a foothold here.
What about native thistles? Aren’t some of them
beneficial? Yes. The native thistles aren’t aggressive. They are
adapted to the ecosystem here and provide habitat for many useful insects.
It’s not difficult to recognize them once you’ve seen them.
The weed identification table at the pancake breakfast will have some
Where can I learn to handle herbicides in the safest
way possible? Reading the label and following the precautions is a great
place to start. In fact, this is essential. The dilution rates indicated
on the label have been tested and should be observed religiously. More
isn’t necessarily better. And don’t use herbicides, or any
chemical, near surface water as it’s harmful to frogs and fish.
On Saturday, there’s an opportunity to talk with a
real expert. A senior administrator from the Agriculture Commissioner’s
Office will be there to answer these kinds of questions.
Are other plants affected by herbicide treatment? This depends on the
herbicide being used. Each herbicide is different. Again, the label is
a pretty good guide, though not exhaustive. Probably this question is
best answered Saturday when the Ag Commissioner’s representative
Will I have to treat the same areas again next year? Yep.
Eradication usually takes three to five years but treatment becomes less
labor intensive in each subsequent year. Even after that, monitoring must
be continued because new seed can enter on animals, vehicles, and other
If I don’t want to use spray on my property, what are
some effective alternatives? Hand pulling, repeated weed whacking, repeated
mowing, praying. Some of these methods are more effective than others.
How will the spray rig help? In the past, weed-control activities
were performed in the Tulare County weed management area in partnership
with UC Cooperative extension, and property owners paid a nominal fee
for the spraying service, enough to cover cost. This year the sponsorship
donation from Century 21 Three Rivers, which allowed for the purchase
of the spray rig in the first place, is also covering most of the cost
Any landowner can have the spray rig treat their property
up to five acres at no cost. Over five acres, a fee kicks in, but only
applies to the extra spraying. Even then it’s very affordable, under
$50 per acre.
tripled to 100 feet
In January 2005, a new state law extended the mandatory
defensible-space clearance from 30 feet to 100 feet around homes and structures
in areas served by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
(CDF), which includes Three Rivers.
The reason for the new law is twofold: Proper clearance
to 100 feet dramatically increases the chance of surviving a wildfire.
Defensible space also provides for firefighter safety when protecting
homes during a wildland fire.
Ed Wristen, CDF-Tulare Unit chief, recognizes that, for some
homeowners, 100-foot compliance will be difficult, require hard work and,
in some cases, be a financial burden. Starting the process now, he said,
will ensure compliance during the property inspections this spring.
Within 30 feet of structures, a fire break must be
maintained by removing all flammable vegetation. The requirements between
the 30 and 100 feet call for fuel separation primarily to slow an advancing
fire. Minimum clearance between fuels is from four to 40 feet, depending
on the degree of slope, vegetation type and size, and other fuel characteristics.
Property inspections by the CDF traditionally begin
in April. The purpose of the inspection is to assess the property owner’s
compliance with clearance of flammable vegetation from structures and
propane tanks, existence of spark arresters, condition of electrical wiring
and lights, storage of combustible materials, and other risks.
A fire-prevention officer will complete a written checklist
for residents noting any conditions that require the property owner’s
attention and a deadline for when the work must be complete. Upon re-inspection,
a citation will be issued if the requirements have not been met.
For more information, contact the Three Rivers Fire
Station, 561-4362. Burn permits, to dispose of the cleared debris, may
be obtained at the local fire station.
The permits will expire when fire season is officially declared (about