Sept. 6 was a pleasant late-summer day in Malden, Washington, a small farming community 38 miles south of Spokane. Skies were blue and temperatures ran in the upper 80s with light breezes from the west.
Early in the afternoon of Sept. 7, a rare wind event pushed a rush of flames into the town from a brush fire believed to have started along a neighboring rural road. Most of Malden was destroyed, including 80% of its homes, a fire station and town hall.
“It was like a bomb went off,” town council member and volunteer firefighter Scott Hokonson told the New York Times.
The strong winds that day – with gusts reaching to 35 mph in Malden – was part of an abnormal weather system that would bring an onslaught of wildfires to Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
Typically this time of year, cool winds off the Pacific Ocean blow from west to east. But on Labor Day, a strong front that had swept down from British Columbia threw the pattern into reverse. Mimicking climatic conditions more commonly seen in winter, winds charged across the Pacific Northwest from east to west. Gusts reached up to 50 mph in some parts of Eastern Washington, according to the National Weather Service.
This powerful easterly wind during peak fire season led to an historical and tragic event.
The warm, dry winds, combined with vegetation left parched by a stretch of hot temperatures and no rain, gave a simple spark or flame the potential to spread explosively. Not only did the winds push existing fires closer to communities, across highways and into canyons, but they fanned new blazes that rapidly accelerated.
In a single day, wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres of Eastern Washington and more than 100 homes. In the Inland Northwest, the blaze that destroyed most of Malden continued to expand, becoming the Babb-Malden Fire that crews continued to battle for almost a week. No deaths or injuries were reported in Malden, where residents were evacuated by Whitman County authorities. In Colfax, a fire destroyed three houses and a shop. In Lincoln County, the Whitney Fire caused by a wind-downed power line resulted in multiple evacuations near Davenport.
That same day, the Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires – the state’s largest wildfires – burned hundreds of thousands of acres of grasses and brush and leveled numerous homes in Okanogan and Douglas Counties.
The day after Labor Day, the wildfires grew in severity in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Most surprising were the fierce blazes that raged in Western Oregon where the climate is considerably damper.
Although the outbreak of fires hit Oregon the hardest, by Friday more acres had burned across Washington in five days than in any of the state’s entire fire seasons besides 2015, Gov. Jay Inslee said during a news conference.
The historic siege of wildfires decimated landscapes across the Pacific Northwest, killing at least eight people and displacing tens of thousands of others. It burned through harvested grain fields, sagebrush and grasses and thick forestland. It also transformed the region’s celebrated clean air into a chalky blanket of smoke that created dangerous air quality conditions.
A week after the wind-induced firestorm began, Washington remained under an air quality alert that was extended until noon Friday after a new wind system turned out to be too weak to drive the smoke away.
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