Wind-driven wildfires erupted across north central Idaho and southeastern Washington on Monday, challenging firefighters attempting to keep up with the mayhem.
Within hours, many of the homes in Malden and nearby Pine City were on fire or completely destroyed. Malden, a rural Whitman County town with a population of about 200, lost its post office, city hall, fire station and other prominent buildings, Sheriff Brett Myers said.
“It is estimated 80 percent of the homes and structures in Malden were destroyed,” Myers said. “The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words. The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime. I just hope we don’t find the fire took more than homes and buildings. I pray everyone got out in time.”
Deputies went door to door during the evacuation process, and made announcements on vehicle loudspeakers throughout the community, notifying residents of the potential danger to life and property, Myers said.
The Whitman County commissioners are expected to declare a state of emergency today.
In Idaho, the Clover Fire near Orofino destroyed two structures and covered an estimated 500 acres by early evening.
“They were described as homes,” said Robbie Johnson, a fire information officer with the Idaho Department of Lands of the structures. “It sounds pretty serious out there.”
The fire was burning just west of the scar left by last week’s Whitetail Loop Fire. Both blazes burned on the north side of the Clearwater River between Ahasahka and Cavendish. The Whitetail Loop Fire also burned multiple structures.
U.S. Highway 12 was closed Monday evening east of Orofino because of the MM 49 Fire, burning at Mile Marker 49. No other information was available on the fire Monday night.
A subdivision south of Emida was evacuated Monday afternoon because of the 15-acre Dusty Fire in Benewah County. Emida is on State Highway 6 about 18 miles north of Harvard.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes bicycle path was closed between Plummer and Heyburn State Park by the Cliff Fire. According to the Idaho Department of Lands, the fire burned about 22 acres but it had a dozer line around it by Monday evening.
Causes were not available for the fires. But a strong cold front from the north swept across Washington, Idaho and Montana, blowing over trees and knocking down power lines across a vast area. Mark Turner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Spokane said gusts were recorded in excess of 40 mph in many areas. Athol, in northern Idaho, was hit by a 60 mph gust.
In eastern Washington, firefighters were working to contain the Whitney Fire near Davenport in Lincoln County. Washington State Patrol Chief John Baptiste said the fire was burning in timber, brush and crops and threatening homes.
Another fire was burning near Spangle in grass, trees and some structures. As of Monday evening, it was estimated at 2,500 acres and growing.
The substantial winds across Idaho and Washington caused power outages to approximately 33,000 Avista customers on Labor Day. Officials said the widespread damage could cause a prolonged outage up to two days.
Avista spokeswoman Casey Fielder, said the company is using extra caution before reenergizing lines in rural and forested areas to help avoid wildfires. During much of the year, lines are reenergized automatically. But in dry conditions, the company checks the lines to ensure they are not compromised by downed trees or branches.
“Before it is reenergized we will go out and physically patrol it,” Fielder said.