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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: After fire, Malden meeting sheds light on community fears, frustrations

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen

People gathered slowly under an open tent in the Malden Town Park, greeting each other with post-disaster small talk.

“Where are you staying?”

“Can’t support the water system now. What if nobody rebuilds?”

“Had a home, now living in an 8x31-foot box.”

“This is where we belong.”

“Probably going to be frustrated before this is over.”

That last comment was specifically aimed at Wednesday’s community meeting, but it’s appropriate for the next year for the communities of Malden and Pine City.

Fire driven by wild winds on Labor Day left crazy patterns in the towns, blasting three houses in a row to ash while the next one remained untouched.

Gerry Bozarth, on loan from Spokane County Emergency Management, has 13 years of experience with disaster recovery, and he made it plain to the crowd he was embarking with them on a marathon, not a sprint.

“My only goal is to help you get through this, as long as it takes,” Bozarth said.

The first signs of recovery happened immediately following the fire, as Avista crews focused on removing hazardous downed trees, securing transmission lines and safely restoring power where there was a building to receive it.

Avista also brought in Latisha Hill, its vice president, community & economic vitality. Hill’s responsibilities include disaster recovery.

“We try to show up in the best possible way, starting with safety and restoration of power and then fill in the gaps, led by community voices,” Hill said. One of those gaps was a place for council members to convene as they dealt with the aftermath. A modular office unit was delivered the first week and is already a familiar sight in town.

But concerns about rebuilding and cleanup were top of mind at Wednesday’s meeting.

While the town of Malden has a community water system, residences have individual septic systems. Chris Skidmore from Whitman County Public Health had good news. On Monday, the Whitman County Public Health Board passed a resolution waiving all permit fees for rebuilding and reconnecting.

“Nice,” murmured people in the clapping crowd.

Burnt-out vehicles are scattered across town and countryside, some blown onto their sides by the winds. Sheriff Brett Myers took the microphone to describe how he has instructed his deputies to streamline the process for VIN-less hulks.

“If it’s on your property, we’ll do the paperwork on every vehicle on the spot so it can be hauled for recycling,” Myers said. “If all that’s left is a bumper, toss it into the scrap metal pile.”

He confirmed after the meeting that his deputies would assist on any other titled or licensed items like four-wheelers or boat trailers if a scrap hauler needs documentation.

The greatest fears expressed at the meeting were directed at state agencies.

Rumor of a $600 Washington State Department of Labor & Industries fine written to the Masons for cleaning up the remains of their historic lodge had firmly taken hold, judging by the meeting. But it’s false, the state said. There was no fine. They were not threatened, or at least that was not L&I’s intent.

Per L&I spokeswoman Debby Abe, L&I received a referral that cleanup was possibly being done without safety precautions for potential asbestos-containing material. An inspector went to the site, decided the agency did not have jurisdiction because the work was being done by volunteers, and provided information about how to work with asbestos more safely, according to Abe.

Abe expressed surprise that what L&I perceives as a simple educational visit often feels threatening to companies and individuals on the receiving end. It was not meant to be, she said.

It would have been satisfying to write a “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” joke for this column, but it’s equally satisfying (although not as much fun) to fact-check.

The recovery team has established a website to help with fact-checking rumors and getting recovery information to scattered Malden and Pine City residents.

Other questions came up about tree debris, hazardous materials, finding contractors, and short-term resources.

Avista has pledged to help support a part-time position for a local coordinator to work with Bozarth on behalf of the town, which is largely operated by volunteers with other jobs. Scott Hokonson, Malden Town Council member, announced recovery meetings will be held every Wednesday and Saturday at 11 a.m., with all information posted to the website for those who can’t make the meetings.

The communities of Malden and Pine City are barely past the starting line of the marathon, and instead of water stations they need money. Donations in any amount may be sent directly to United Way of Whitman County designated for Babb Road Fire Recovery.

Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at rulingpen@gmail.com

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