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Federal Aid Arrived For A Burned Town. It May Not Be Enough For Next Fire Season

The cleanup of toxic debris has been slowed in Malden Wash. after former President Trump held up aid as part of a political dispute with the state's Democratic governor.
The cleanup of toxic debris has been slowed in Malden Wash. after former President Trump held up aid as part of a political dispute with the state's Democratic governor.

There is anxiety along the picturesque, rolling wheat fields and pine forested draws of the Palouse in eastern Washington right now, where folks will tell you it looks and feels more like mid-July than the middle of May.

"Just a watch and see, [you] pray a lot," says Cindy LaMontagne. The dry winds have been blowing an unusual number of days, with little or no rain, which stirs up trauma for people like her who lost their homes in a fast moving range fire last Labor Day.

The Babb Road Fire destroyed 80% of all the homes and buildings in the tiny farming town of Malden where LaMontagne moved to be near her daughter and granddaughter in 2012.

Most of the couple hundred or so survivors were poor - Malden was a rare place in the region where housing was still affordable - and, like LaMontagne, they had little or no insurance. With nowhere else to go, she spent the winter living in a small travel trailer on her burned out lot.

"That was kind of touchy, some of the heat went out," LaMontagne says.

She hopes to rebuild, but it's not clear when that might happen.

"We're surviving," LaMontagne says.

Surviving, but with the renewed threat of more wildfires just around the corner. Scott Hokonson, a town councilman and lead coordinator for the local recovery, says there are real concerns that Malden, what's left of it, isn't ready.

"It brings us close to tears, because what if we don't have time to harden the town? What if we don't have time to make it ready?" Hokonson asks.

Eight months after the fire, many of the lots here have still not even been cleaned. The homes date back to the early 1900s when Malden was a railroad town. It's feared the fire stirred up toxic debris from asbestos, silica, lead and other hazardous materials.

The story of Malden's sluggish recovery is a tangle of economics and rural neglect, but namely politics.

Last year, former President Trump refused to approve a routine disaster declaration for Malden because he was feuding with Washington's Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat. So that federal aid didn't start arriving until after President Biden took office and he finally signed the order.

The irony for Hokonson is that most of his neighbors along this burnt out dirt road were Trump supporters.

Scott Hokonson stands at the site of where his home used to be in Malden Wash. A wildfire on Labor Day of 2020 destroyed 80% of the small farming town.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Scott Hokonson stands at the site of where his home used to be in Malden Wash. A wildfire on Labor Day of 2020 destroyed 80% of the small farming town.

"We suffered from that, if its intent was to harm us, it was effective" Hokonson says.

Whitman County is routinely one of the nation's top wheat producers. Wildfires were certainly not uncommon here over the years - a spark from a tractor setting a cut wheat field afire, a careless driver tossing a cigarette butt out a car window into a dry pasture. But locals say last Labor Day with its multiple 'red flag warnings' and 50 mph winds was something entirely different.

The fire that destroyed Malden burned 15,000 acres in only a few hours. It started when a tree fell onto a powerline. At one point, fire officials estimated it was chewing up the equivalent of sixty city blocks a minute.

"I think that if you and I were adults, say, 20, 30, 40 years ago, we'd say this isn't where forest fires happen," Hokonson says.

The nation's top fire managers warn Malden is the future.

"We've got global climate change hitting us hard, this has been a generational thing coming on," says Grant Beebe, assistant secretary for fire at the Bureau of Land Management.

At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho - where Beebe is based and the country's fire suppression strategies are coordinated - officials are sounding the alarms about the months ahead. Ninety percent of the western US is now under drought conditions.

"It's windy, it's droughty, it's as dry as it should be in the summer right now," Beebe says. "That's not the first time this has happened but I'll say the years are stacking up."

Last year, NIFC ran at the top preparedness level for weeks meaning that all available firefighting resources were deployed or taxed out. Despite the pandemic, Beebe says a record 32,000 firefighters were mobilized. They're planning for a similar scenario this summer. And fire officials are hopeful that with vaccines now available, quarantining and other protocols can be relaxed some.

They're also pleading with the public to be careful and vigilant. Most of the destructive and deadly wildfires in recent years in the West have been caused by human activity, not natural events such as lightning strikes. Once these fires get away, especially in an era of climate change, they're nearly impossible to control. Knowing that, across the West, many first responders and agencies are left with prioritizing evacuation planning.

"I think [Malden] was a definite eye opener for eastern Washington, how easy it can happen," says Bill Tensfeld, emergency management director for Whitman County, Wash.

Bill Tensfeld, director of emergency management for Whitman County, says the destructive wildfires last year should be an 'eye opener' for the rest of eastern Washington this summer.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Bill Tensfeld, director of emergency management for Whitman County, says the destructive wildfires last year should be an 'eye opener' for the rest of eastern Washington this summer.

One recent afternoon Tensfeld drove his truck up to a knoll just above Malden where he reflected on the chaos of last Labor Day. Even if they'd had 100 more trucks available here, he says, they probably still couldn't have saved the town. They were lucky to get everyone out alive, though.

"I'm anticipating and gearing up for it to happen again," Tensfeld says. "I don't want to sound like the grim reaper but it's got just as good a chance of this happening to any community in the Palouse."

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