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'Everything's Gone': Rural Washington Struggles After 'Blowtorch' Of A Wildfire

Most of the buildings and homes in Malden, Wash. were destroyed in the Labor Day wildfire.
Most of the buildings and homes in Malden, Wash. were destroyed in the Labor Day wildfire.

The 2020 wildfire season is a grim reminder that disasters unfairly hit the poor and the elderly. Thousands of people on the West Coast still lack even temporary housing.

Malden is a tiny farming town amidst eastern Washington's "oceans of wheat fields."

Or it was.

When a wind-driven firestorm raced into town on Labor Day, James Jacobs and most of the town's some 300 other residents lost their homes.

"Everything's gone," Jacobs says. "Everything is completely lost."

Like many others in Malden, which skewed older and lower income, Jacobs didn't have insurance. The 2020 wildfire season is the latest troubling reminder that disasters unfairly hit society's most vulnerable. On the West Coast, it's thought that thousands of people are still lacking even just basic, temporary housing.

With help from the Red Cross, Jacobs stayed in a hotel in nearby Spokane for five days after the fire but is now back at his property trying to figure out next steps.

Jacobs, who is in his 80s, is gaunt and his wrinkled face is worn with stress. He and his wife, who's recovering from a stroke, moved to Malden in 1994. It was an affordable place to retire: a friendly town in a pine forested gulch surrounded by farms.

Now, Malden's only post office, its town hall, its library, fire station and food bank are leveled. The church is still here, but its siding is melted and twisted.

"This was so bad that on the second day when they allowed people in here, I understand a congresswoman showed up and broke out in tears," Jacobs says, choking back tears himself. "She couldn't handle it."

The devastation up and down the West Coast right now is hard to take in. And it can feel like most national leaders aren't paying as much attention as they might in a normal year. President Trump has visited the region only once; a brief stop at the Sacramento airport where he at times made rambling comments about the need to clean up leaves.

James Jacobs lost his home to the fire, and like many others, didn't have insurance.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
James Jacobs lost his home to the fire, and like many others, didn't have insurance.

Of course it's mostly evergreen forests in the West. And the fire in Malden was a range fire in wheat fields driven by winds that folks here said they've never seen before.

"There's no way that this could happen without a 50-mile-an-hour wind that made it act like a blow torch," Jacobs says.

California and Oregon have received close to $30 million in federal aid so far. It's been slower to arrive in Washington, which has seen far fewer fires and fatalities. Still, in mid-September, citing an imminent homelessness crisis, the state requested a presidential disaster declaration to free up more badly needed funds for housing and other aid. The Trump administration has yet to issue a decision.

A traumatized town

In Malden, locals consider it a miracle that no one died Labor Day considering that most people had only minutes to evacuate. The fire was moving so fast. The town had put together an evacuation plan after a close call with a wildfire three years ago.

It may have been the difference.

Scott Hokonson is a town councilman and volunteer firefighter who raced door to door evacuating people. His voice shakes when he recounts the horror. He's traumatized, waking up in the middle of the night often wondering if they missed someone.

Scott Hokonson, a town council member and volunteer firefighter, stands in the rubble of his home which was destroyed by the wildfire.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Scott Hokonson, a town council member and volunteer firefighter, stands in the rubble of his home which was destroyed by the wildfire.

"Yeah I keep waiting to hear that there's a body, [that] there's bones," he says.

Hokonson also lost his house. He does have insurance and is hoping to rebuild, but everything is up in the air.

So he's staying focused by leading up the area's recovery task force. One morning driving through what was left of the town, Hokonson pointed out the odd home here or there that was spared. Most had metal roofs or some sort of gravel or concrete around them that may have slowed down the fire.

If there's one lesson from 2020, it's that no part of the West seems immune from disaster.

Hokonson says he'd like to see the town build back smarter with more of a focus on the ignition zones around homes that fire scientists increasingly say could be a major factor in our new reality of mega fires and climate change.

But all of this is out in the future someday. It's hard to focus on rebuilding or not when so many people are in crisis right now.

"I'm one of those people, I'm thinking that too, what do we do in the short term," Hokonson says. "We can't stay in a hotel, eating pizza, on a bed, in 300 square feet forever."

A need for empathy

It's even more stressful in a pandemic. People were already feeling isolated.

This is tops on the list of Linda Pritchett's worries. In the nearby town of Rosalia, Wash., which didn't burn, she's helped to set up a food and clothing donation center in the Lions Club.

Fire survivors walk in numbed and just needing simple things like a hug, which she gives masked, she says.

"Right now that's a necessity, and empathy, and people just want to know that people care," Pritchett says.

She talks as she helps a woman find clothes to give to her husband so he'll have something nice to wear to church. There are good things happening here, despite all the negativity you're hearing in the news, Pritchett says. The Lions Club has been overwhelmed with donations and support from people across the Northwest. Even the "sister" town of Malden, Mass., reached out.

"It didn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, we were all just Americans helping each other," Pritchett says. "I just keep telling people there's more good people in this world than there's bad and we just have to remember that."

Right now, volunteers are focused on getting help to older folks such as James Jacobs, who may be too proud to ask for it.

Most of the buildings and homes in Malden, Wash., were destroyed in the Labor Day wildfire.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Most of the buildings and homes in Malden, Wash., were destroyed in the Labor Day wildfire.

Back at his burned out lot, Jacobs says it's too expensive and tiring at his age to consider rebuilding, even if he did have insurance.

"You can't look back at it all the time, it's getting better, you either give up or solve the problem," he says.

A coworker of his daughter-in-law had an RV he could buy for $16,000. He's getting it hooked up to his old sewer and power lines. After all, winter is coming.

"Well, it's just the wife and myself, and that's plenty comfortable enough," Jacobs says.
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