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Three months after the fire, Malden’s recovery effort is on the shoulders of local leaders

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 2, 2021

The effort to rebuild Malden and Pine City began at the lone, surviving picnic table.

Town hall was gone. So was the library. And post office.

It took only minutes in a wind-driven inferno, 80% of the towns’ homes disappeared – reduced to scattered rubble.

Town Councilman Scott Hokonson, whose home was destroyed, assumed a fleet of relief workers would flood into town.

He admits now his notion that “literally women and men on white horses or white trucks would come in and there would be trailers, and there’d be power and water and food” was unrealistic.

There was no grand arrival of people who knew just what to do.

So, with no place for shelter, town leaders huddled around the picnic table and used a stray garbage can as a windscreen to have a phone call with Gov. Jay Inslee, Hokonson recalled. Hokonson found himself taking charge as the picnic table at Malden’s park became the gathering point for community meetings.

Some people did show up to help, including Bill Tensfeld, Rosalia fire chief and the director of Whitman County Emergency management, and Paul Kimmell from Avista. Still, it quickly became clear that locals would have to lead.

That’s how Hokonson became one of the central leaders in the effort to help his community recover. He now is the executive director of the Pine Creek Community Restoration group.

“I guess I looked around and there wasn’t really anybody else,” Hokonson said. “I just kept showing up and so that’s how it kind of started.”

On Labor Day weekend, Malden was devastated when the Babb Road fire destroyed 80% of the homes in the town of roughly 200 people. The fire started when a tree snapped and fell into power lines operated by Avista. The power lines slapped together, igniting the tree, and less than an hour later flames were rapidly headed toward Malden, 40 miles south of Spokane.

More than 120 homes in the Malden area were destroyed.

Now, 12 weeks later, trucks rumble through the town headed to private properties where a state contractor is removing hazardous waste. Most of the lots in town are still full of rubble.

But there are signs of life, with a handful of temporary trailers dotting one side of Malden Community Park. Avista provided the trailers to house city hall and the combined library and food bank, as well as state contractors who are clearing properties of hazardous waste.

One white trailer with blue trim sports a laminated sign reading, “Pine Creek Community Restoration,” and inside Hokonson works to put the town back together.

He has been working to get the Pine Creek Community Restoration group set up. The group, led by Hokonson and a board of directors, will be a nonprofit that helps coordinate with federal, state and local agencies and other nonprofits on restoration efforts for Malden and Pine City.

Setting up a long-term recovery organization is often the first step to community recovery and rebuilding, Hokonson said.

Digging through the rubble

Head to Malden on any given day, and you’ll likely find Hokonson at work. Alongside him could be Gerry Bozarth, a disaster recovery specialist on loan from Spokane County, Hank Cramer from state emergency management, interim Mayor Dan Harwood, Kimmell and Tensfeld. This is the team guiding Malden through these next critical steps.

Tensfeld spent 40 straight hours working the Malden fire, helping get everyone evacuated and managing fire crews. Still, to this day, he remains amazed that no one died in the fast-moving wildfire.

“The biggest surprise to me was when the sun come up the morning after and there were no fatalities,” Tensfeld said, still emotional about that day. “I could have bet $1,000 there would have been a dozen dead people.”

As a fire chief, Tensfeld’s work in Malden was done after the fire was out. But as director of Whitman County Emergency Management, Tensfeld will be helping meet the immediate and long -term needs of the community.

Tensfeld is the sole full-time employee of the Whitman County Emergency Management department, which also has one part-time employee. The emergencies they usually deal with are snowstorms, so they weren’t prepared to tackle something as devastating as Malden Tensfeld said.

Luckily, word travels fast, and a few days after the fire, Tensfeld’s phone rang. Spokane County would be sending disaster recovery specialist Bozarth to Malden on indefinite loan to help him sort out the disaster.

Not long after, Washington State Emergency Management sent a disaster expert of its own, Cramer. Cramer worked with the state’s emergency management division for more than a decade before retiring to Winthrop, but his expertise is so valuable he often gets called out for disasters.

Since the fire, Cramer has been living and working as a disaster recovery adviser out of a hotel in Colfax . He said it’s important to recognize the locals leading long-term recovery efforts are also working in a state of trauma.

“The biggest challenge is the total psychological trauma to everybody involved,” Cramer said. “The people who were worst affected are the people whose lives were already in turmoil.”

Even people who felt they were on a good path before the fire are making major decisions while coping with the trauma, he said.

Cramer sees his role as helping everyone “get through their personal trauma and the total disorientation of their normal world” and start rebuilding.

Other disaster recovery experts lent their advice to local leaders. Carlene Anders worked to put together the recovery group in Pateros after the Carlton Complex fires devastated the region in 2014. Now she works as the executive director of the disaster leadership team, mentoring community leaders nationwide as they help their communities recover.

While groups often start meeting right after the fire, it takes time to set up a mission, bylaws and a board of directors, she said. It took them about three months to do so in Pateros, she said.

In Pateros, the Federal Emergency Management Agency quickly arrived and helped connect local leaders to nonprofit organizations that work in disaster relief.

“FEMA did come for us and thank God they did,” she said. “They were critical for us.”

While other states affected by wildfires this summer, including Oregon and California, quickly received FEMA aid, Malden has been in a holding pattern for months, limiting even the most basic cleanup efforts like removing hazardous materials so residents can return to their properties.

Wildfires raged near Pateros at the same time they leveled Malden, but Anders still found time to mentor Hokonson on restoration efforts, despite having similar work to do close to home.

“I am really excited and hopeful for Malden’s group,” Anders said. “It seems to be forming very nicely.”

The recovery group meets on Wednesdays to update the community on progress and share resources and other information. Meetings are held via Zoom.

Local leaders step up

Hokonson moved to Malden about four years ago in hopes of creating a quiet life where he could spend more time with his three sons.

He bought a 1909 Sears kit Craftsman house that, despite having all original unpainted woodwork, needed a lot of work. Not long after moving to town, a fire came close to Malden. Hokonson happened to be home at the time and helped evacuate people.

He was so helpful that after the disaster was averted, he was asked to join the fire department. A few months later, he was appointed to the town council.

Before moving to Malden, Hokonson had worked in a variety of jobs – one for a home builder in Seattle helping homeowner organizations get set up and work with the builder, another working in facilities management for Target, and even as an arborist. He was pursuing a dual master’s in social work and urban planning at Eastern Washington University until the fire put that on pause.

Hokonson’s Craftsman home burned to the ground in the fire. Luckily, he was insured and is now living temporarily in a rental home in Spokane. Despite losing everything, Hokonson wanted to help his community and began taking the lead on initial fire recovery.

Since then, Avista has offered to cover Hokonson’s salary as executive director for the recovery group. While he isn’t getting paid yet, he has been putting in 80-hour weeks, something he admits bashfully.

The work is beginning as there’s a change in city leadership. Mayor Chris Ferrell resigned late last month. While Ferrell did not respond to requests for an interview, her fellow public servants were understanding about her resignation.

When Ferrell became mayor about six years ago, the job was far less involved. Andrea Harp, who has lived in Malden for 45 years and served as mayor from 2003 to 2007, said it “really wasn’t a lot of work.”

She mainly managed the water system and the fire department, and answered residents’ questions, Harp said.

“It’s a volunteer position; you do not get paid,” Harp said.

Being mayor probably became a lot more work after losing city hall and, along with it, the town’s records, not to mention dealing with answering residents’ questions and fire recovery, Harp noted.

“These guys have been doing a good job cleaning up. You know, it’s slow, but they’re doing a good job getting around to everybody,” Harp said. “I feel sorry for the people that are in charge of this town because I was mayor. I know how hard it is to satisfy everybody.”

Town Councilman Dan Harwood was appointed interim mayor on Tuesday, a job he said he hopes to do as long as he’s able. He has lived in Malden for about 26 years and lived in the region for most of his life. He married Tami VanDyke, a long-time town council member whose family was heavily involved in the building of Malden.

“Our family is very ingrained in our town,” he said.

Harwood’s home and land sustained $70,000 in damage due to the fire, including losing an outbuilding.

Harwood served 16 years as fire chief before retiring, although he recently was coaxed back to help with training.

When Ferrell stepped down, Harwood said he knew he had not only the time it would take to be mayor during the recovery period but also the expertise; he retired in 2018 as manager of the Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District, where he coordinated with other government agencies and wrote millions of dollars in grants.

“I know that people need somebody that can give a lot of time. I can do that,” Harwood said. “I get along with most everybody. I understand I’ve got the government background. So you know, just my life experiences prepared me for this. It’s really crazy, but it’s true.”

Through his former job and through years of living in the area, Harwood said he has learned to respect those around him.

“I may not agree with everybody, but you learn to respect them,” Harwood said. “The people that have lost their homes here, the respect that we have for those folks is above and beyond. And I just want to help. And this is one way that I can.”

Like many of the people on the town council, Harwood was thankful the former mayor did as much as she could and is now happy to take the baton.

“Our former mayor did a good job, but she had a full-time job that she had to do,” Harwood said. “And this is very stressful. I don’t care what anybody thinks. This brings joy, but it brings stress.”

Other local leaders have stepped up in their own ways. Town Councilman Bob Law has lived in Malden for 64 years. He has been focused on handing out donations, setting up a temporary food bank, and coordinating weekly free lunches, donated by various groups that serve as a community touch point for residents.

As someone with his ear to the ground but uninvolved in many of the legal aspects of the recovery effort, Law often helps quash rumors.

“There’s a lot of discouraged or disgusted people because they don’t understand the procedures,” he said.

People will often hear a rumor that money has been donated to Malden and start asking where their share is, he said.

“You don’t just start handing out buckets of money to people,” he said .

The long-term recovery group is working with the Innovia Foundation and United Way to help collect donations that will then be distributed to the community after needs are assessed.

That’s a long and ever-evolving process, Bozarth said.

Only 40% of the structures lost in the fire were insured. The vast majority were underinsured, meaning their insurance won’t cover the actual cost of rehabbing the property and rebuilding, Bozarth said.

For people like town councilwoman Lori Dickinson, buying home insurance wasn’t really an option. Dickinson lived in a 1971 mobile home that most insurance companies said wouldn’t be worth insuring.

After losing the trailer, Dickinson said she was lucky to have family support. She bought an RV and is splitting time between the RV and her daughter’s house.

Like many of her neighbors, Dickinson has been struggling with the slow pace of recovery.

“If you’re a person that’s a go-getter and stuff, you want to get it done, and you want to get it done now,” she said. “But when you have to wait, it has a tendency to make you feel like nobody cares, nobody wants to help you, and that’s not true. They do want to help you; It’s just that there are so many rules and regulations that they all have to follow.”

Even assessing people’s immediate needs has been a slow process, Hokonson said. One disaster relief caseworker was brought on last month and five more are receiving training this week, he said.

In the meantime, communication has been a struggle, with some residents declining help altogether or being extremely difficult to find without a forwarding address, Hokonson said.

Others are wary to fill out government forms that make them eligible for aid, Hokonson said.

He worries that people who aren’t ready to engage with recovery efforts will miss out on building relationships with their neighbors who are dealing with the same traumas and start to become isolated.

‘America coming together to help Americans’

With all the roadblocks, red tape and long waits for federal help, Hokonson acknowledges that it might be easier to buy a house somewhere else, but he and many others are determined to rebuild in Malden.

“This is my community; I’m part of them and I’m part of a family,” Hokonson said. “I feel like this is my chance, this is my shot. This is my time to see if I can help others.”

The small-town community is a big part of why people want to stay, Hokonson said.

“Everybody that lives here likes it here,” Dickinson said.

After moving from Rosalia 10 years ago, Dickinson said everyone was so kind to her. Instead of having a block watch like in larger cities, they have “town watch” Dickinson said, where everyone watches out for their neighbors.

For Harwood, the area topography and rich history are unlike anywhere else.

“You go back through history, and farmers and ranchers and railroaders all have one thing in common. They’re just a little bit bullheaded,” Harwood said. “The idea of survival is always on their mind.”

With a community that goes back 100 years, the chance to grow and rebuild is a challenge that they are ready to take on, he said.

Harwood hopes that rebuilding offers new opportunities, like getting fiber internet to every home, allowing residents to work from home rather than commuting to other areas.

Before the fire, Malden had three main buildings – city hall, the post office and the library.

Librarian Vanessa Place said she loved how she was able to help her community by creating a welcoming place to gather.

“It has been a real good way to get to know new people and be there to help people,” she said of her job. “That was kind of what I did before the fire even.”

When the library burned, the town lost its only community space. But on Wednesday, in a temporary trailer, the library reopened again, providing a space to browse for new books, pick up activity bags provided by the library system and use free Wi-Fi.

“I think it’s finally some normalcy. When you look around, nothing’s back to normal at all,” she said. “Being a resident, it feels like our home is coming back together.”

In the coming weeks, a temporary food bank and community meeting space also will reopen as local leaders continue to wait for an answer on their pending FEMA designation.

Despite the struggle, the small glimmers of light – like the library reopening, incoming donations of not just money but things like quilts and hand-knit beanies – bring connections that give residents hope.

“This is America coming together to help Americans,” Harwood said. “You don’t get things any better than what we’ve been blessed with. “

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