Our hearts go out to the residents of Malden, Pine City and other communities devastated by the wildfires sweeping the West.
The grief and sorrow seem beyond words. The loss in human lives includes a 1-year-old boy killed in the Cold Springs Fire near Omak, along with dozens of people missing or deceased in other states.
Catastrophes can bring people and communities together. Or catastrophes can cause those ties to collapse. What will be the legacy from the inferno that started around midday on Labor Day and roared toward Malden as firefighters from throughout Whitman County were battling blazes elsewhere?
Rebuilding communitiesOnce-prosperous Malden has about 200 residents and Pine City far fewer. Life in such locales has long been a struggle as residents moved out and businesses closed. Disasters like a wildfire can be enough to wipe such small towns off the map.
Yet Malden and Pine City are part of our Eastern Washington culture and our broader community. Whether we realize it or not, we all would experience a loss if residents and neighbors were to give up on their fire-ravaged communities and more of rural, small-town Eastern Washington were to disappear.
If Malden and Pine City are to fully recover, they will need the encouragement and support of their fellow Washingtonians along with the expeditious, enduring assistance of local, state and federal agencies.
Many residents are low-income, lacked insurance and lived in houses built as far back as the early 20th century. Most of their homes are now gone, along with Malden’s post office, town hall and fire station. Many residents have lost the basics of daily life, and they will need help to navigate the weeks ahead. Donations on their behalf to relief organizations, churches and community groups will be greatly appreciated.
Longer term, the residents deserve to determine their future. For rebuilding, they need financial and technical aid that begins soon and that respects their independent spirit. Government leaders should have no tolerance for mind-boggling bureaucracy that saps the will or leaves folks in limbo.
Gov. Jay Inslee, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and others toured the burned-out communities this past week, seeing the devastation firsthand and hearing how residents had only minutes to evacuate. Our public officials’ promises of effective, efficient government help must be fulfilled, instead of falling by the wayside as a pandemic and election-year wrangling consume the nation’s attention.
Preventing the next fireRebuilding, while essential, by itself will not be enough. To avert the next disaster, Washington must make progress in fire prevention and response, as state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said when she visited Malden.
“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 said.
Making homes communities fire- resistant is an ongoing task, especially when residents have financial or other challenges. Building fire resiliency and strengthening fire prevention strategies must become a higher priority for governments, businesses and families.
At the same time, our state’s firefighting corps has insufficient manpower. As in Malden, more than three-quarters of Washington fire departments are composed entirely or mostly of volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The numbers of volunteers have been dwindling for years, and some small departments lack the money for up-to-date vehicles and other equipment.
In her recent Spokesman-Review column, Sue Lani Madsen described the need for more people to volunteer as firefighters. This is a statewide and national issue, and the Legislature and Congress should address barriers to recruiting, training and equipping these invaluable volunteers.
Severe wildfire seasons are not guaranteed every year, but they are an increasing probability. Neither our elected officials nor anyone else dare be complacent. People can argue about how or why the climate is changing, but it is obvious that abnormal weather events are contributing to this year’s wildfires and natural disasters around the nation.
Malden and Pine City need our help. Our state needs more preparation.
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