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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State finds weakened tree needed ‘closer inspection’ to prevent fire that destroyed 80% of Malden

UPDATED: Tue., May 18, 2021

A pine tree that made contact with an Avista Utilities power line, apparently starting the Babb Road Fire in southern Spokane County, is seen Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, after it was cut down by workers.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A pine tree that made contact with an Avista Utilities power line, apparently starting the Babb Road Fire in southern Spokane County, is seen Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, after it was cut down by workers. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A state investigation into the Labor Day fire that burned 80% of the homes in Malden blames a damaged tree that was blown into power lines.

The report by the Department of Natural Resource alleges that a closer inspection of the tree was warranted.

The report does not specifically blame Avista Utilities for not inspecting or removing the tree. But it does note that branches of the Ponderosa pine tree fell into Avista’s powerlines and ignited the brush beneath. The strong winds then pushed the fire into Malden.

About 120 homes, eight commercial buildings and 94 other structures were destroyed in the wildfire, the report found.

DNR investigators found that branches on the ponderosa pine had been damaged three to four years prior to what has been named the Babb fire, likely from high winds or heavy snowfall, the report said.

Branches cut from the tree after it was damaged prevented growth of foliage that would have nurtured the tree. Instead, the weakened pine was left vulnerable to wood borers that damaged it further, the report said.

In an email sent to The Spokesman-Review, Avista said the cause of the fire was “extraordinary wind conditions” that affected many electric utilities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The damaged tree stood outside of Avista’s maintenance right-of-way, the company said in a statement.

Avista said it received a copy of the DNR report last Friday and is in the process of analyzing its findings. As of Tuesday, Avista said it had “not found any evidence and does not believe that the fires were caused by any deficiencies in its equipment, maintenance activities or vegetation management practices.”

The report does not disclose who cut branches from the tree after it was damaged by earlier weather events. The property owner is described in the report as surprised that the “trees had not been removed by the power company.”

The Babb Road Fire is among other devastating wildfires caused by trees and branches falling into power lines. In 2019, California found that the Camp Fire in the town of Paradise, which killed at least 85 people, started with a tree contacting a power line the previous year.

Spokane’s Firestorm in 1991 destroyed 112 homes as more than 80 wildfires burned 50,000 acres in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. It started with a downed powerline.

No one in Malden or Pine City died in the fire. Most of the towns’ homes were uninsured trailers and century-old houses. Only 40% of the structures in town were insured, and federal aid took months to arrive.

Townspeople formed a long-term recovery group. Many Malden and Pine City residents are living on their scorched properties in RVs. Early in the recovery, Avista provided trailers to act as city hall and the combined library and food bank.

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