MALDEN, Whitman County — Laura Rankin watched a mushroom cloud of smoke balloon from her kitchen window the day fire came.
The sky turned gray and wind swirled unnaturally from the east while birds flew frantically. Smoke and dust blotted out the early afternoon sun above this tiny former railroad town surrounded by tall pine trees and rolling, brittle yellow wheat fields just south of Spokane.
Tree branches swung in the opposite direction and 60 mile-an-hour winds slammed against the wrong side of her house, as if the town had been flipped like a snow globe.
Rankin’s garden — 6-foot-tall hedges and rows and rows of wild homestead roses planted after she lost her husband 11 years ago — made easy kindling for the fire that bulldozed Malden in mere minutes last Labor Day.
Flames moved as fast as a car speeding down the highway. Count to 10 and another acre burned.
What would become known as the Babb Road fire was just one of 39 to ignite across Washington state on Sept. 7, 2020, as the National Weather Service issued a “red flag” alert for wildfires.
The loss in Malden is a likely harbinger for more communities throughout the Pacific Northwest as climate change brings hotter summers and drier grasses and timber. How Malden fared in the fire and has slowly begun to rebuild serves as a warning.
In a year, just two of the at least 67 homes lost in Malden have been restored. The library, food bank and town hall still operate out of trailers. The population has shrunk from roughly 225 before the fire to about 125 today.
The fire — sparked when a tree hit with a live power line owned by Avista, the local utility company — illuminates how interconnected power companies and wildfires can be, and the wide latitude and sparse oversight afforded to electrical lines implicated in burning down homes or towns.
The Babb Road fire burned more than 15,000 acres and 228 structures in the small valley towns of Malden and Pine City. No one died that day, and everyone says that is the most important thing.
But for most residents, the fire remains ever-present: in the vacant lots where homes used to be; in the claustrophobic, overheated spaces of RVs that serve as temporary housing; and in the longing for photographs, handwritten love poems and children’s drawings lost in the rubble.
Malden’s piecemeal recovery — cobbled together largely through donations and delayed, incomplete state and federal resources — prevented swift action after the catastrophe.
“When everything is wiped off the map, it is a disaster when your entire way of life is gone,” said Scott Hokonson, a Malden resident and former town council member who pounded on doors during the fire, calling for residents to get out. “It is going to be a fight to get even the most basic of services back.”
In 2021 alone, the Washington Department of Natural Resources has responded to nearly 2,000 fires consuming just over a half-million acres of land, representing the most individual fires in the last decade in the state, and the third-highest acreage as of Sept. 1, even as fires continue to burn. This Labor Day, flashing road signs are again warning drivers of extreme fire risk.
“Oh I never want to go through it again,” said Bill Tensfeld, the emergency manager for Whitman County and a firefighter for more than three decades. “It happened so easy and I can see how it could happen again this Labor Day with a different community.”
“Damn tough year”
Local crews were already deployed at other disasters when reports of the fire hurtling toward Malden cracked over the radio, just before noon that Monday. Some fire trucks arrived empty. Incident command called for resources and help evacuating, but aircrews were grounded by the wind, and cell and radio service went down.
“Resources very few and far,” they reported at 1:09 p.m., “Trying to figure out what houses we can save now.”
By 2:17, the 911 call log stated: “town of malden is gone, ukn if everyone got out in time.”
Days later, Rankin would find the bodies of two cats, Fluffy and Marky, amid gnarled metal remains of homes reduced to a knee-high mound of ash. Today, there is just a concrete foundation and blackened stumps where her two white and red gable-roofed houses once stood, shaded by 100-foot pine trees. Amid the weeds, the flowerless green stems of rose bushes have started to grow back.
“The weeds are taller than the plants,” said Rankin, 66. She stood outside a temporary trailer where she and her partner now live, her hair pulled into loose gray braids.
“I have to get to that,” she said. “I have just been too depressed.”
Some residents and first responders say nothing could have been done to stop the fire. It traversed the mile-long town of Malden in minutes and was so hot homes burned from the inside out. Even 300 fire crews, instead of the 10 that showed up, wouldn’t have changed the outcome, Tensfeld said.
Still, others wonder if Malden would have fared better if it were a wealthier community. Some wish they had stayed behind to defend their houses despite the evacuation orders.
“When we had the first meetings there was anger, oh boy,” said Mayor Dan Harwood, who took the position in December 2020. “And it didn’t make any difference who you were but there was anger and people were frightened. They didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“It has been a damn tough year,” he said.
After the fire, dozens of families spent weeks and months in the Ramada Inn in Spokane, paid for by the Red Cross, waiting for help. The lucky ones had insurance. Few checks came quickly. Many found barriers to rebuilding in high lumber costs, complex sewer regulations and a lack of labor amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But roughly 70 percent of Malden residents were underinsured or had no insurance, unable to afford the coverage or the repairs needed to make homes or mobile homes insurable.
Clothes, food, and toiletries came from local churches, as well as groups across the U.S. and Canada. A fund set up by United Way of Spokane collected donations from 161 groups and individuals, including one woman’s stimulus check. Harwood said he does not know the total sum collected.
Despite this fellowship, the first few months after the fire also brought discord. The former mayor, Chris Ferrell, survived the fire with her home intact, provoking anger that contributed to her resignation last fall, residents said. Ferrell did not respond to an interview request.
There was also contention about how resources were distributed, and why some residents received more help than others. And there was infighting within the town council about how recovery should proceed, from controversies over how money would be distributed to the existence of climate change.
Then, on a cold afternoon two days after Christmas, one resident died by suicide.
The earth still smoldered just below the surface, the ground warm to the touch.
Jim Jacobs and his wife, Joy, lost their home of 26 years, which they’d built together in 1994. Just 44 days later, Jacobs lost his wife, who was in her late-90s. “She just gave up … after she’d seen we lost everything,” he said.
He had canceled the fire insurance on the house after three price increases, so there was little to recover. Then, on the day of Joy’s funeral, her only son died after overdosing on pain medicine in the grief of losing his mother, Jacobs said.
“If you lost your wife that you’d been with 50 years, you lost everything you worked for …” He said the loss spiraled. He would leave Malden, but says, “I want to rebuild a house in her memory.”
Delayed federal response
Missing from the recovery was the anticipated federal response. While state recovery funds helped test for contamination and clean up debris, the bulk of funding Malden expected from a federal disaster declaration submitted in September appeared to have been caught up in political infighting between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Jay Inslee, who had run for the Democratic nomination.
Malden did not receive Federal Emergency Management Assistance approval until Feb. 4, after President Joe Biden took office. Ultimately, that relief only granted help for infrastructure, not individuals, as the town originally sought.
“With everything else people are dealing with in the world, your town is burned down, you are poor and you are red and your president isn’t helping you,” Hokonson said, explaining the sense of desertion Malden felt during that period.
“The people who have houses left were dealing with survivors’ guilt. It looked like Dresden after the worst bombing,” he said. ”We are a small county. We didn’t have anything left. It was the last opportunity for the American dream.”
Kevin Anderson spent four years hunting for an affordable home in Eastern Washington for his wife and two girls before he was approved for a 1909 two-story farmhouse in Malden two years ago. It had a large barn and yard for their aging white lab, Michiah, to roam.
“We planned on dying in this house,” he said last week, sitting on the steps of an RV in black socks, sweatpants and a T-shirt that read, “Nope, not today.”
“I’m not OK over it, I know that much,” he said.
Anderson was cooking pancakes for his girls, Mackenzie, 9, and Winny, 3, while an episode of Elmo — about a fire at the Sesame Street firehouse — played on the TV last Labor Day, when a neighbor knocked on the window, wide-eyed.
He jumped in his rig and drove around town to see for himself, making two trips back to the house to gather belongings as his family evacuated. But that night, parked near the hills to sleep, he realized they had forgotten their potbellied pig.
“Being a 40-year-old man with his first home, a wife of 12 years, a dog, a cat, a pig — a little piece of paradise he’d created, watching it all burn down. It’s a nightmare,” he said. “I live in regret.”
Who is to blame?
Why this town burned, and if it could have been prevented, remains an open question.
In May, an investigation by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) implicated a power line from Avista, the regional utility, in the blaze, prompting skepticism about the company’s support for Malden’s recovery.
Eyewitnesses, state investigators, and a state forest pathologist concluded in the DNR report that the fire sparked when a 54-foot branch of a ponderosa pine fell onto an electrified utility line. Investigators found prior damage to the limb, indicating it had been scarred by contact with the line several years earlier, and said “closer inspection was warranted” before the fire.
The company says it was the weather and extreme wind conditions — not its decision to keep the power lines energized or failure to inspect the tree — that caused the fire, noting that the tree was outside the utility’s direct right of way.
Avista has given Malden roughly $500,000 from its charitable fund, said Paul Kimmel, a representative for the company who was on scene within hours of the Labor Day fire. It also paid Hokonson to spearhead recovery efforts, as well as for local supplies, including trailers that serve as the town hall and library.
After the DNR report, Avista told Hokonson it would no longer pay his $38-an-hour salary.
Whether Avista was negligent will be a focus of a lawsuit being prepared against the utility on behalf of residents by the law firm Pacific Fire Attorneys.
Washington currently has more lenient utility standards than California, where all utilities must report fire incidents and have developed regulator-approved plans to potentially cut power to lines when fire risk and weather reach the type of extremes experienced on the day of the Babb Road fire. Washington leaves much of wildfire management in each utility’s hands, experts say.
Kimmell says Avista has a robust wildfire plan and vegetation management plan but does not plan to commit additional fire management resources at this time.
DNR sought records from Avista for data about utility lines in the fire region last November, but as of the report’s publication, the company has still not responded.
Still, Avista and Malden maintain a close working relationship. Last week Kimmel and Harwood sat together in an Avista-donated trailer and each spoke passionately about the town’s plans for recovery.
The mayor and some residents said they felt a wave of hope in June after crews cleared most of the scrap metal and dead trees away.
By November they intend to have a new temporary fire station; two trucks have already been donated. By January, the goal is to build another nine houses through donations from an Amish group in Montana and a Canadian charity. And by spring there will be fiber internet and hopes to draw remote workers, and a new water system.
“Malden will be the newest, oldest town in Washington,” Harwood said.
This year, on Sept. 7, the town will gather for an anniversary event that Harwood said is about “resiliency.”
“They are not doing OK,” said Harwood, “but they are surviving.”
When the wind blows
Hours after Rankin evacuated on that Monday afternoon nearly a year ago, she decided she wanted to go home. Police had shut down the roads in and out of town so, in her small Scion xD, she and her partner drove through the wheat fields to get back to Malden.
Her homes were gone, her possessions charred and largely unrecognizable. Her cable dish was perched precariously aloft on a pole, but the roof that once supported it no longer existed.
They stayed up all night, watching the small fires and the smoke still rising from the earth, before driving back through the wheat fields to the emergency room, where Rankin’s partner was treated for dehydration and exhaustion.
After four months in a hotel, her property is now cleared of molten glass and asbestos. The air conditioner in their trailer is broken, so they ate frozen grapes to bear the 110-degree heat in June and July.
She holds her breath that the manufactured home she ordered with insurance money will arrive before winter, but she feels guilty she had insurance when others did not.
And when the wind blows, or a singed campfire smell hits the air, she doesn’t sleep.
Seattle Times video journalist Ramon Dompor contributed to this story.