This article was originally published in Washington State Magazine, Winter 2023. Writen by

THREE YEARS AGO, a wildfire nearly destroyed Malden, Washington. As wind-driven flames raced across the parched late-summer landscape, residents got a 30-minute warning to evacuate.

No one was killed in the Babb Road Fire, but 80 percent of the small town in Whitman County was destroyed on September 7, 2020. Homes burned, and Malden lost its city hall, fire station, post office, library, and food bank.

As the community recovers, residents are re-envisioning their town’s future. Landscape architecture students from Washington State University contributed ideas and designs last spring, drawing on the city’s railroad history and residents’ interest in amenities that will help attract tourists and new residents.

Founded in 1909 as a stop on the Milwaukee Railroad, Malden’s population dwindled after the fire but has rebounded to about 150. “We’re one of the oldest and one of the newest cities in Washington state,” says Mayor Dan Harwood. “We’re literally rebuilding most of the town.”

Nineteen landscape architecture students took part in the senior capstone design class. Most grew up in urban areas. “Interacting with residents from a small, Eastern Washington community was a novel experience for them,” says Jolie Kaytes, professor in the School of Design and Construction, who taught the class with Associate Professor Steve Austin.

The students heard first-hand accounts of the Babb Road Fire and got a better understanding of issues facing rural residents.

“People were pretty vivid about describing their experiences during the fire,” says Jarin Manuel (’23 Land. Arch.). “I appreciated that they were willing to talk about such a sensitive topic.”

In the capstone class, landscape architecture students focus on projects with real-world applications. During their careers, students may very well be working with communities recovering from wildfires, Kaytes says. Although fire is a naturally occurring part of the Pacific Northwest landscape, and light burning helps rejuvenate fire-adapted ecosystems, climate change is increasing wildfires’ intensity.

“As part of WSU’s mission, the landscape architecture program is grounded in serving society and creating places that help people and the environment,” Kaytes says. “We’re in an increasingly hotter time, and our graduates will be working with clients affected by extreme weather events.”

Students presented their projects at a forum in Malden in late April. Many of the projects focused on developing public spaces for residents and tourists. Student designs envisioned a central retail district for Malden, walking paths, redesign of Malden’s park, a public square for outdoor events, community gardens featuring native and pollinator friendly plants, and a monument commemorating the fire. In some plans, the city’s gray water was used for irrigation.

Students also capitalized on Malden’s proximity to the Palouse to Cascades Trail⁠—a non-motorized route that follows the path of the former Milwaukee Railroad. Based on the trail’s popularity with out-of-town cyclists, students designed a city campground for trail users.

Manuel developed his capstone project around living with wildfire, emphasizing the “firewise” principles of keeping open areas around rural residences and creating fire breaks by spacing trees and pruning lower branches.

“Initially, I was hesitant to focus on fire, but I knew I had to address it,” Manuel says. The Malden fire started when a branch dropped onto a power line during a windstorm and swept through a belt of trees in the Pine Creek watershed.

Although ponderosa pines burned in the Malden fire, they’re a fire-adapted species that can survive ground fires. Properly managed, ponderosas are a valuable source of shade, windbreaks, and wildlife habitat, Manuel says.

“We need better vegetation planning, not only in Malden, but in surrounding areas of Eastern Washington,” he says. “The firewise techniques in my presentation could be adapted for other communities.”

In Malden, public buildings are being rebuilt with state and federal dollars. Volunteer labor and private donations are helping residents rebuild their homes.

City officials have banked the students’ designs for future consideration, says Harwood, the mayor. As funding becomes available, the city hopes to invest in its public spaces and amenities. Many of Malden’s residents are retired, but they see opportunities to attract younger families interested in a rural lifestyle, particularly if parents can work from home or are willing to commute.

“The students brought in so many fresh ideas,” says Chandelle Frick, a Malden resident. She shared her experiences of living in Malden with a student from China and was intrigued by another student’s proposal to encourage local food production by creating a farmers market.

“I enjoyed the process immensely,” Frick says, “and I would like to see some of these ideas take root.”