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Chasing Joy: After losing everything in the fire, a 90-year-old Malden man finds purpose in returning to treasured land

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 11, 2021

Across a concrete bridge, tucked between the rolling hills of the Palouse, there’s a round green sign that reads “Town of Malden.”

Big trucks carrying debris rumble over the bridge past charred trees . Empty pits that used to be the foundations of homes dot the hillside overlooking a green park lined with temporary buildings. Out of a long, slender white trailer, the construction manager, speaking in a southern drawl, assigns crews to the lots they’ll clean up each day.

Remnants of the area’s railroad boom town roots peek through in quaint decades-old homes surrounded by RVs placed on dusty lots and a couple modular homes.

Up the center of Malden’s main hill, past the freshly painted white church, is a postage stamp of a property.

A little gate held closed with a blue Pringles can keeps Goldie, a tan, yappy and often ash-covered dog, close to her 90-year-old owner.

Jim Jacobs, clad in his daily uniform of a collared shirt, suspenders, work-worn jeans and tattered sneakers, descends the metal steps of the motor home where he now lives, parked on the cement slab that held the house he built for his wife decades ago.

Peeking out the door behind Jacobs is a black kitten named Solo with a golden patch of fur between her gray-blue eyes. Her mother, Silver, slinks behind the trailer. The pets, who narrowly survived the fire last year that took everything else Jacobs held dear, have been his only companions.

Perfect conditions

The sun beat down overhead as Pine Creek gurgled through a quiet Malden on Sept. 7, 2020. The holiday weekend marked the end of a hot, dry Eastern Washington summer. A string of red flag warnings led up to that Monday.

Out of nowhere, trees started to sway, power lines waved with the wind and junk in many of Malden’s yards shifted. The smell of smoke wafted into town, tainting the clean, fresh air that brought Jim and Joy Jacobs to Malden in the mid-1990s.

It was a typical morning for the wiry Jacobs, who cared for his ailing 97-year-old wife in their quaint two-bedroom home nestled behind a row of tall, bushy trees.

When a sheriff’s deputy knocked on their door Labor Day weekend, Jacobs’ first thought was protecting his wife.

“We just didn’t have enough time at all,” Jacobs said. “We had to rush to get out of here.”

On that windy Labor Day, a falling tree branch hit Avista power distribution lines and caused sparks that ignited the extremely dry brush in the surrounding area. Hot and dry weather primed conditions for quick fire spread, and flames roared toward Malden. Most residents had just minutes to evacuate before the fire barreled into town.

“It got really hot and I could feel, like, a temperature difference,” said Scott Hokonson, a volunteer firefighter, Malden town council member and friend of Jacobs. “I thought I should just probably get people out.”

He hadn’t heard any reports of the fire, didn’t even know where it was coming from, but had an instinct to leave and make sure everyone else did too.

Jacobs loaded up Joy and Goldie and grabbed his lockbox with cash and some important documents tucked inside. They sped away from their home, leaving the stray cats they cared for behind.

“The trees were burning alongside the highway, next to our van, and you could feel the heat coming in,” Jacobs said. “You go 50 feet or so and stop, and another maybe 100 feet and stop, because the smoke was so bad you couldn’t see where you’re going.”

The couple drove to their grandson’s home in Cheney, unsure of what they would return to.

Fire in the rearview mirror

The sky, blue just minutes before, turned orange, followed by thick black smoke.

“The sky was like the most dangerous oil painting you’ve ever seen,” Hokonson said.

Hokonson had succeeded in getting as many people out as possible with the help of Whitman County Sheriff’s deputies.

“Embers were hitting the ground, there was smoke … there was fire everywhere,” Hokonson said.

Many people Hokonson hadn’t seen, including the Jacobses. He worried they hadn’t made it out, but conditions were getting worse, so despite his fears, he decided it was time to leave.

Hokonson stopped just past the bridge at the edge of town to talk to some of his neighbors to see if they were OK when a brown horse ran past them out of town.

“I remember thinking, ‘At least the horse isn’t on fire,’ ” Hokonson said.

Love, life’s guiding force

Jacobs’ one focus remained, Joy.

He had been that way since they met over the Christmas holidays in 1971, over-the-top, head over heels in love.

Jacobs went with a friend to Joy’s Poodle Parlor, the dog grooming business Joy owned, where she was selling a 100cc Honda road bike. While the friend’s focus was on the bike, Jacobs’ was on Joy.

Her soft brown hair curled around her face, as she doled out smiles and donuts to customers.

Jacobs threw his arm around her and said, “I’ve got to have you,” he recalled with a boyish grin on his face.

Just a few months later, they were married.

The couple, along with Joy’s children from her first marriage, embarked on new adventures as part of Jacobs’ work. He held a range of blue-collar jobs working for many major West Coast companies, including Boeing, Kaiser Aluminum and United Airlines. He even worked on the cleanup after the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

“I had to go wherever they needed things fixed,” Jacobs said, with a shrug.

His wife always by his side, she packed him lunch and sent him off to his latest job. By the early 1980s, the couple, now empty-nesters, settled in the Tri-Cities for Jacobs’ work at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

“I figured out we’d have to be 120 years old in order to do all the things we’ve done,” Jacobs said with a chuckle. “We were that busy.”

Jacobs built a home near the Yakima River surrounded by more than an acre of land.

“We made a showplace out of that,” he said. “Worked on that thing for seven years.”

But the couple couldn’t stay in their dream home. Joy had an asthma flare-up due to pollution in the air near the nuclear plant, Jacobs said.

“I hated to sell that place, but I had to get her over here where she could breathe the air better,” Jacobs said.

In 1994, the couple moved to Malden, where Joy owned several lots and a home she had inherited from her aunt. There, Jacobs spent two years building his wife the perfect retirement home.

Every detail, including the location of the bedrooms and the layout of the den, was tailored to display Joy’s antique collections. Handmade porcelain dolls graced shelves guarded by a 5-foot Egyptian warrior figurine, while residents of a model town pulled their vintage cars into the parking lot of a white church.

“We worked pretty hard,” he said. “It was a nice house. It was comfortable.”

The home, midway up Malden’s main hill, was the couple’s sanctuary. Jacobs had every tool he could need in his shop. They led a quiet life, raising their grandson as Jacobs tinkered around the house and Joy collected antiques.

The couple’s granddaughter, Tiana Sanders, also lived with them in Malden for a few years, riding her bike up to the hills and playing outside.

“They were always working on the property,” Sanders said.

Joy tended to her plants in the garden while Jacobs worked on renovating Joy’s inherited home and did upkeep on their own place, Sanders said. Sanders remembers her grandparents looking after the kids in Malden, even letting some of them move in temporarily when they needed a place to go.

As the years wore on, Joy began to forget things. It slowly became clear something was wrong.

In 2018, Joy was diagnosed with dementia. She lost most of her short-term memory, Sanders said.

“Grandpa would have to remind her to eat and stuff like that,” Sanders said.

Jacobs began to spend more of his time looking out for Joy, making sure she took care of herself and was safe.

Everything Jacobs did, he did for Joy – including dropping the insurance policy on their home to save money to build an attached garage so he wouldn’t have to take Joy in her wheelchair outside in bad weather.

On a fixed income, the repeated increases in his insurance rate, along with the tedious paperwork updating the policy every two years, was an expensive hassle, especially in such a quiet town, Jacobs said.

Living in limbo

After fleeing the flames, the couple spent the night at their granddaughter’s house in Spokane Valley before moving to a hotel the next day.

They weren’t sure what had become of their home or the outdoor cats they left behind. Jacobs said he was in shock and can’t remember much from those first days, including how he found out their home was gone.

One thing he does remember is driving into town with Joy in their recently purchased motor home, past charred remnants of homes, to find their house a pile of smoldering rubble. Their cats were nowhere to be found.

“Shock is a funny thing, you just can’t explain it,” Jacobs said. “It’s just that you didn’t want to find what you found, and you was hoping for some way that more would be left.”

A few surprising things were left in Malden’s park, like an old splintery wooden picnic table that quickly became a makeshift command center. Amid the chaos of the 72 hours after the fire, Hokonson turned into the de facto town leader, talking with responding agencies and government officials, including Gov. Jay Inslee.

It was immediately clear that the majority of the houses in town were destroyed, but less clear was what had happened to the people who lived in them.

“A lot of people who were there, officials responding to the fire, talked to me about ‘you need to expect bodies,’ ” Hokonson said.

Without an organized evacuation, Bill Tensfeld, Rosalia fire chief and director of Whitman County Emergency Management, was sure someone had died. He just had to find them.

Residents waited for weeks to see whose lives had been claimed by the fire that had destroyed their homes.

“That really stuck with me,” he said.

More than a month later, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers and his staff had tracked down all the residents and were able to say confidently everyone had escaped.

No one died in the flames, but some may have died because of them.

Losing everything and more

Jacobs was determined to get Joy on familiar ground as soon as possible, thinking the land they shared for the past 25 years was the best place for her. Her memory was fading, and he hoped being in their sanctuary would keep her with him longer.

“I wanted to get Joy back home, but I couldn’t do it because I had no place to live,” Jacobs said.

The couple returned on Sept. 16 in the motor home. Their lot was scorched. The trees that gave the couple privacy from the road were charred skeletons.

The next few weeks were a dark time for Jacobs as he tried to care for Joy, while processing the “monumental” loss of everything they had worked for over the past five decades.

Joy’s already fragile health quickly started to decline.

“It appeared to me, the way she acted, like she just gave up because we lost everything we had,” Jacobs said. “Joy got so she wouldn’t even eat.”

Joy couldn’t even recognize her husband, let alone her granddaughter, Sanders said.

“After the fire, she just disappeared,” Sanders said. “She couldn’t remember who I was, she couldn’t remember Grandpa, she wasn’t even there no more.”

The family took Joy to Sacred Heart, where she stayed for a few days before she died on Oct. 21, less than six weeks after the fire.

Jacobs was devastated. The love of his life was gone.

“Oh, he lost it,” Sanders said. “If it wasn’t for the fact of me and my husband being there and pretty much keeping him going, he said he would have gave up.”

Jacobs admits he could barely process what was happening.

“I was in so much shock,” he said.

The town the couple settled in for Joy’s health had killed her, Jacobs said.

The devastation was only made worse when Joy’s last living child, John Wall, had a heart attack and died the day of Joy’s funeral.

Wall, who was in his mid-60s, had been sick for years, all but confined to his Spokane Valley home, Sanders said. He was getting ready to attend Joy’s funeral reception when “his heart just gave out.”

“I think losing his mom, his heart couldn’t handle it,” she said.

Worrisome winter

Jacobs returned to the ash-covered lot he had shared with Joy and cried. He spent the cold winter in his motor home depressed and alone, surrounded by the rubble that once was his quiet sanctuary.

He lost weight, his already slim frame becoming nearly skeletal. The suspenders he wears daily became a necessity. For a decade, Jacobs spent all his time caring for Joy, even forgoing spending time with his extended family and friends. Now the person that gave meaning to his life was gone.

“When I lost her, there’s where the cowardice came in; I didn’t want to live. I didn’t care whether I lived at all because I had no purpose,” Jacobs said. “She was my purpose.”

The scene outside of Jacobs’ trailer furthered his depression. The trees stopped smoldering and the smoke dissipated. Little changed in Malden for months. The Whitman County Sheriff’s Office scrapped about 250 burned-out cars in the town and volunteers made sure residents’ basic needs were met.

It became clear that many Malden residents needed significant help. Only 40% of the structures in town were insured, leaving most residents who lived in the approximately 120 homes destroyed by the fire without a safety net. Some residents were staying with family, and others had moved back onto their burned-out properties in RVs. Still others decided to leave Malden behind.

Hokonson, along with a group of his neighbors, formed the Pine Creek Community Long Term Restoration group to work with nonprofits, government entities and stakeholders, and started on the long process of rebuilding the rural town. Mayor Chris Ferell resigned, and town Councilman Dan Harwood was appointed to fill the position.

A lack of help or guidance from the federal government, brought on by a delay in answering Washington’s FEMA request, meant cleanup from the fire was slow. Locals like Harwood and Hokonson spent the first three months making sure people had housing, no matter how temporary, and worked to structure the recovery effort.

Jacobs knew there wasn’t much he could do on his property with snow on the ground, so he waited. The only bright spot during those dark months was Silver showing up with the only surviving kitten from her litter, Solo.

Emergency management caseworkers contacted all of the Malden and Pine City residents to see what their needs were and direct them to services. Jacobs immediately loved his caseworker and took solace in the fact that someone cared about him and came to check on him.

As snow melted and turned ash to mud, Jacobs had some support from his caseworker and slowly began to creep out of his depression with a new goal: rebuilding Joy’s house to honor her memory.

When the ground softened, a group of Amish and Mennonite volunteers built two homes for some of the neediest of Malden residents. The modest two-bedroom homes were built with donated funds and labor. The only cost to the future owners was an insurance payment, a step toward preventing future losses.

The homes were also built on lots large enough to house new septic systems, a rarity in Malden, where most lots are too small to house modern septic tanks.

For Jacobs, seeing the new homes go up and chatting with the Amish men working on them was a bright spot.

“They were one of the only decent things that’s happened since the fire,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs doesn’t see a reason to rebuild Malden.

“Malden don’t have funds to rebuild itself,” Jacobs said. “This town is not going to rebuild, and the only reason I’m here is in honor of Joy.”

His granddaughter offered to have Jacobs move in with her in Oregon, but he has been adamant about staying on the property, Sanders said.

“I’ve tried everything,” Sanders said. “He will not leave.”

The thought of having a home again, as close as possible to the one he shared with his wife, is what keeps him going. But Jacobs understands why many of his neighbors won’t come back.

“The people that suffered the loss … they want to get away from it. It leaves a scar on you,” Jacobs said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I had 26 good years with Joy, I wouldn’t have been back.”

In May, the Department of Natural Resources found that a closer inspection of the weakened tree that caused the fire was warranted. The report didn’t explicitly blame Avista for not inspecting the tree, but Jacobs and many other residents are frustrated by the fact that an Avista power line sparked the flames. He plans to take legal action against the company for a settlement large enough to rebuild his home.

“When they get to court, there’s no way they can deny it,” Jacobs said. “It’s there – the government even says they did it.”

Avista, however, points to the dramatic weather events of the day.

“An incredibly unfortunate act of nature” caused the fire, said Paul Kimmell, regional business manager for Avista. He noted the company has helped with the recovery process since the beginning.

Jacobs said it’s clear the fire caused him to lose precious time with Joy.

There’s different people who would say, ‘Well, how can you say the fire killed her?’ ” Jacobs said. “I said, ‘I’m not saying the fire killed her, but it made her time less on this Earth because she just flat gave up after she found out we lost everything.’ ”

Over the summer, Jacobs worked on his property, growing a yard, building a shed and adjusting the water pipes in hopes that he’ll be able to start building a new home before winter.

Several nonprofit groups have offered to build Malden residents homes, and Jacobs hopes one of those groups will help him.

He has gained weight. He has a healthy glow on his face and a new purpose keeps him going every day: the goal of living in Joy’s house again.

“I lived on this property for 26 years. I’m back here. I was one of the first ones to get back after the fire and I’m not going nowhere,” Jacobs said through tears. “I owe it to her and her memory.”

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