Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz visited local leaders in the burned town of Malden on Wednesday, saying the wildfire that raged through the area on Monday should be a wake-up call to Washingtonians and state lawmakers about the need for better fire prevention and response strategies.
Little remains of Malden, which counted about 200 residents, or the neighboring community of Pine City. As the extent of the damage came into clearer focus on Wednesday, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said about 95 homes and 100 other structures were destroyed in the firestorm. Those included Malden’s post office, town hall and fire station.
Franz, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources, joined Malden Mayor Chris Ferrell and firefighting commanders on a tour of destroyed homes and buildings in the northern Whitman County community before speaking to reporters.
After more than half a million acres in Washington burned Monday and Tuesday, Franz said her department had been trying to summon outside assistance, but federal agencies and crews from neighboring states are spread thin. Firefighters in Australia, who have assisted American crews during past wildfire seasons, are now under travel restrictions due to COVID-19.
Making matters worse, Franz said, strong winds have made it too dangerous to fly planes over Washington’s wildfires and drop water or fire retardant.
“The winds have been brutal,” she said. “Firefighters are fighting a gallant fight, but there are little resources to be found in the air as well as on the ground.”
Franz said more than 500,000 acres in Washington burned in just 48 hours after numerous fires started Monday across central and Eastern Washington. That, she said, is more than four times the amount of land that burned in all of 2019, and about half the amount that burned in 2015.
Whitman County Emergency Management Director Bill Tensfeld, who also leads the county fire district that encompasses Malden, said every firefighter in the county was summoned Monday to fight two fires in and around Colfax that started within 15 minutes of each other. The fire near Malden was reported about an hour later, he said.
“Again, no aircraft were available because of the winds. State resources were stretched thin,” Tensfeld said. “It was an event where if you had 100 fire trucks, it still wouldn’t have been enough.”
Malden had only “a handful” of volunteer firefighters, and the town lost its aging fire engine, which was still parked in the station when the fire swept in, said Ferrell, the mayor.
The fire, which reportedly started along Babb Road in Spokane County, seemed to decimate some buildings and spare others with “no rhyme or reason,” said Ferrell, whose home and outbuildings are among the few still standing.
“This is very devastating to our town,” she said through tears. “We had no chance.”
David James, Avista Utilities’ wildfire resiliency planning manager, said about 100 power poles in the area needed to be replaced, and crews were working Wednesday to restore power to homes that survived the blaze with an onsite generator.
Ferrell grew up in Malden and has lived there most of her life. She has served as mayor for about five years. It’s a volunteer position, as are the five seats on the Malden Town Council. The town’s only paid employees are the clerk, a maintenance worker and the technician for the municipal water system.
Malden’s private businesses are long gone, and many residents are unemployed. The town’s population, before Monday, was a fraction of the more than 1,000 people who lived there in 1920, when it had a railroad depot.
“A lot of our families are on low income. A lot of them did not have insurance. Some of these homes were very, very, very old, so to get insurance was pretty tough to do,” Ferrell said. “We’re trying to get them back in here, get them to rebuild. Some of them might just walk away … because they don’t have the resources that they need.”
Franz said public education is one part of the solution to mitigating wildfires. People can’t grow complacent when a year goes by without multiple record-breaking blazes, she said.
“This state needs to realize that these fires are now an annual thing, even when we don’t see smoke in the air. Last year we had 1,350 fires. It was a gallant effort by our firefighters to help prevent those fires from spreading so that the rest of the state didn’t actually experience it,” Franz said.
“Ninety percent of our fires are caused by humans, and we’ve got to do a better job of people knowing how to prevent them in the first place, because then that gives every one of these communities and our firefighters a chance.”
Franz, who was first elected in 2016, spent the last legislative session lobbying for a bill that would add a $5 surcharge to home and auto insurance policies, which would generate an estimated $62.5 million a year for forest maintenance and firefighting resources.
The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, recently reported the state spends an average of $153 million per year battling wildfires.
Franz argues the state could spend less if it had the resources to stop fires from growing out of control.
“Investing up front and getting at the root of the issue, having the resources to fight these fires and keep them small, and investing in the landscape of these communities to be more resilient will go farther in saving money and saving lives,” she said. “And people need to start to wake up to that.”
Gov. Jay Inslee was expected to visit Malden on Thursday before joining local officials in Pullman to discuss that city’s coronavirus outbreak, which has been fueled by the return of Washington State University students. Pullman police have begun cracking down on students who throw parties or flout mask requirements.
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