On the fateful day of the Babb Road Fire that decimated Malden and Pine City, volunteer firefighter Dan Harwood had to make a choice.
He was fighting the fire with the town’s only fire truck after flames had crept up alongside the station. Then the Whitman County Sheriff said the danger was too great and it was time to leave.
“I had to make a decision,” he said. “So the truck burnt up.”
Three months later, a shiny, red fire truck drove into Malden with a Christmas wreath mounted on the front. Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz presented now-Mayor Harwood with a new fire truck from the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday.
“I’m honored to be in a position to lend help, to give this community the support they still need,” Franz said. “While this engine is a small step in the enormous task of rebuilding Malden, it’s absolutely essential to be able to protect what is rebuilt.”
The new truck is a 620-gallon 2002 International 4300 Type 5 engine. Harwood said the truck will not only fight fires, but be stocked with medical equipment for other emergencies. Harwood has already begun working with the insurance company on rebuilding a fire station, and until then the truck will be stored in nearby Rosalia.
The vast majority of Malden and Pine City residents who lost their homes during the Babb Road Fire were either uninsured or underinsured. Getting a new fire truck, Harwood said, is the first step toward helping people get insurance on their new homes as they rebuild.
“For Malden, it’s just the start of getting back to the normal capability of providing service for their citizens,” said Bill Tensfeld, director of Whitman County Emergency Management and Rosalia Fire Chief.
While the truck is an exciting step toward rebuilding, Harwood and Franz mentioned their frustration at a lack of response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state requested federal assistance on Sept. 7 but has yet to receive any response, even as other states who filed after Washington received their aid.
“I can’t hammer it enough over and over again,” Harwood said. “We need a decision from FEMA.”
Even if FEMA rejected all or part of Washington’s request, any answer at all would allow Malden and Pine City residents to apply for other types of aid, like loans from the Small Business Administration.
“Obviously, you can look around, the devastation is horrific,” Franz said. “They have limited resources, they need help. Of all the communities that should be getting those resources, it’s towns like Malden. It is Malden.”
Franz said that the decision “shouldn’t take this long.”
“It is truly unfortunate. The requests have been put in and should have been met,” Franz said. “We have state leaders, congressional leaders that are raising it up to say this should not be the case. We need to get these resources to this community. We’ve got to find a way where FEMA is actually being responsive.”
A FEMA designation would open up temporary housing, debris cleanup and grant money, among other resources.
Franz said there has been a “tireless effort” by local leaders to work toward recovery while also working to elevate their voices to the federal level.
“I think there’s been an unbelievable sense of heroism from the local county leaders. You heard from the mayor, from the fire emergency response,” she said.
Overall, Franz said this is an example of how Washington is not “truly prepared for emergencies.” She hopes to build up the infrastructure so the state can be more self-reliant, not only in that immediate emergency response but long-term recovery.
“We do not have the infrastructure in place at the local and state level to be able to respond to those disasters. And FEMA has been the entity federally that does that,” Franz said. “I think as we see more states having more of these disasters, from wildfires and floods to hurricanes to tornadoes, and fewer resources coming from the federal level, states have to become more reliant and dependent on themselves.”
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