This story first aired on NPR, September 8, 2020. by Mark Katkov. Twitter feed from Bill Chappel.
Almost every structure in the small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington state was destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire Monday as high winds created what officials described as a firestorm.
According to the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office, 80% of the town’s structures were destroyed. The town of about 200 people is 35 miles south of Spokane in an agricultural region known as the Palouse.
“The scale of this disaster really can’t be expressed in words,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said in a statement. “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.”
As of early Tuesday, there were no reports of injuries from the wildfire that swept through Malden.
Officials said the fire was fueled by high winds of up to 45 mph, standing timber and dry fields. Deputies went door to door and used public-address systems on their patrol vehicles to tell residents to evacuate the area immediately. Within hours, most of the small town had burned to the ground.
Malden lost its fire station, post office, City Hall, library and most of its homes, according to the sheriff’s office.
Myers said he believed all residents in the area had safely fled but couldn’t be sure, according to The Spokesman-Review.
“The fire was too hot and too quick to even get a count,” Myers said.
Malden was not alone in seeing catastrophe on Labor Day — a day Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz described as heartbreaking and surreal as a result of the intensity of wildfires and the speed with which they spread.
“Today alone, almost 300,000 acres in Washington have burned,” Franz said via social media channels. “Thousands of homes are without power. Many families have had to evacuate their homes and many homes have been lost.”
“At least 80 fires started in Washington in what officials call a historic fire event,” as Spokane Public Radio reported.
Authorities are still taking stock in Whitman County, where the local emergency management agency, the sheriff’s office and fire officials planned to inventory buildings and attempt to contact and account for all residents on Tuesday.
Most of Washington remains under red flag warnings because of the high risk of wildfires. The National Weather Service has declared part of the state and parts of western Oregon as “extremely critical” fire areas.
“We’re expecting east winds and extreme fire danger over the next two days,” Franz said.
The wind poses a double threat as it can quickly propel fires and also frustrate attempts to fight them. The Cold Springs Fire sprinted 60 miles across Okanogan and Douglas counties in just 20 hours, Spokane Public Radio reported. And the winds drove a mass of smoke and sand into the air, forcing officials to ground firefighting planes and helicopters.
“Really our actions are limited to keeping people out of harm’s way and working the edges of the fire as best we can,” Russ Lane, a fire manager with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, told the Spokane station.
In addition to Washington and Oregon, parts of California, Arizona and Nevada are seeing “critical fire-weather conditions,” the National Weather Service said, citing an ongoing heat wave, dry fuels and strong winds that could gust to above 60 mph in some areas.
As of Tuesday morning, at least nine large fires were burning in Washington state, Franz said.
Clouds of thick smoke from the wildfires have been driven west toward Puget Sound and coastal areas, prompting a number of people to make emergency calls to the King County Sheriff’s Office, as NPR member station KUOW reports.
The prevalence and health risks of smoky air are being compounded by a number of factors, from homes that lack air conditioning to officials’ reluctance to open “smoke shelters” because of the coronavirus. KUOW has published a list of tips to help people reduce the amount of unhealthy smoke in their homes.
Franz and other officials are pleading with residents to avoid any activities that could cause sparks and ignite a new blaze.
“We’re still seeing new fire starts in every corner of the state,” Franz said. She added that 90% of the wildfires in Washington’s recorded history have been caused by people.