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Saturday, October 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tree on power line likely cause of fire that destroyed Malden, Pine City

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 19, 2020

New power poles, seen Thursday, have replaced damaged poles in the area where the Babb Road Fire started Sept. 7 on the southern edge of Spokane County.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
New power poles, seen Thursday, have replaced damaged poles in the area where the Babb Road Fire started Sept. 7 on the southern edge of Spokane County. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A tree that made contact with an Avista Utilities power line on the southern edge of Spokane County appears to have started the Babb Road Fire, which raced through nearly 15 miles of dry brush and timber during an intense Sept. 7 windstorm, destroying the vast majority of homes in Malden and Pine City.

The Spokesman-Review on Thursday located a partially burned pine tree that had been cut down with chainsaws, lying beside a row of recently replaced Avista distribution poles in the area where residents first reported seeing smoke.

In an email Friday, Avista spokeswoman Casey Fielder said “we can confirm that the tree in question made contact with the lines, and appears to be the area where the fire started.”

Avista also released a public statement Friday saying it has learned of instances where “otherwise healthy trees and limbs, located in areas outside its maintenance right-of-way, broke under the extraordinary wind conditions and caused damage to its energy delivery system.”

However, the company said it “has not found any evidence that the fires were caused by any deficiencies in its equipment, maintenance activities or vegetation management practices.”

Avista said it is cooperating with ongoing investigations by the state Department of Natural Resources, and it’s coordinating with the agency on fire suppression efforts.

“We are deeply saddened by the devastation in numerous communities throughout our region in the wake of the unprecedented windstorm,” said Dennis Vermillion, Avista’s president and CEO. “From the outset of this storm, our focus has been, and will continue to be, to look for ways to help support affected communities as they begin to assess and repair the damage.”

The Babb Road Fire was reported just before noon on Sept. 7 in a stand of trees near Babb and Morrow roads. From that low basin area, the fire quickly crossed into Whitman County, pushed toward the southwest by winds of up to 50 mph. Residents say that’s unusual; on most days, the wind moves through the area toward the northeast.

Within a few hours, the fire reached the town of Malden, about 7 miles west of Rosalia and U.S. Highway 195, forcing its roughly 200 residents to evacuate with any belongings they could carry. The mayor of Malden has said only 27 of the town’s roughly 130 homes were still standing after the fire.

Fielder, the Avista spokeswoman, said the utility has restored power to all homes in Malden and Pine City that “were in a state to be restored.”

Fielder said Avista this year finalized a wildfire resiliency plan that outlines “substantial steps that Avista has taken to guard against the growing threat of wildfires, including grid hardening, enhanced vegetation management and many other industry-leading best practice measures.”

Some utilities, including PG&E in California, have attempted to reduce the risk of wildfires by deliberately shutting off power, moves that have been controversial due to unintended consequences for some who rely on electricity.

Fielder said Avista’s plan “does not currently include planned power outages, and it’s premature for us to provide specific details about future plans at this moment.”

The Babb Road Fire and a second, smaller fire just south of it burned a total of 18,254 acres, according to InciWeb, a federal government website that tracks wildfires across the country.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Steve Van Dyke, 66, who lost his childhood home and several outbuildings on his property just outside Malden. “It was unstoppable.”

Van Dyke, a longtime firefighter with Whitman County Fire District 7, said he helped battle the fire until the sun rose the next morning.

The house in which he and his wife live was spared, but he doubts insurance will cover the true cost of the other property damage. Though he lost a lot in the fire and wonders how many of his neighbors will be able to rebuild, he’s thankful no one was seriously hurt.

“It’s mostly just stuff,” he said. “Human life is so much more important.”

As for Malden, the town where he grew up and attended grade school, Van Dyke said “it’s just all going to change now.”

“It’s all memories.”

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