75% of Malden buildings destroyed
Wildfire races through northern Whitman County
Last updated 9/10/2020 at 4:52pm
MALDEN — High winds and dry weather conditions propelled a wall of flames southwest across rural Spokane and Whitman counties Monday, leveling homes, businesses and government offices.
Approximately 75 percent of structures in Malden burned to the ground, including City Hall, the post office, a gas station and a historic church.
Burned out cars were visible throughout town adjacent to what was left of homes and garages.
Local ranchers and residents manned hoses and buckets of water to try to keep flames at bay as they returned to their homes late Monday evening.
Dubbed the Babbs Fire, the cause remains under investigation, interagency fire spokeswoman Sydney McBride said.
Area farmers and ranchers, however, said they believed the fire began when gusty winds toppled a tree on power lines near a dry wheat field near Babbs Road, between Cheney and Rosalia about noon.
Once the wheat caught fire, winds pushed the blaze rapidly to the southwest.
Ranchers along Squaw Road, Texas Ferry Road and Blackman Road answered the call, bringing out water tenders and helping each other protect their homes while watching their wheat fields be destroyed.
Sherry Hames recounted her harrowing experience with the fire.
"We just got up to the hay shed. The fire came up and just went poof, and we started running," Hames said. "Fire was hitting us in the back, but we just made it out. It was very scary."
Several of the rural neighbors gathered briefly at the intersection of Squaw and Blackman roads, where they planned how to get their water tenders to others who needed help.
Many, however, still lost hay barns and their winter supply of hay for livestock.
Meanwhile, fires roared to life across the region, whipped by winds in excess of 45 mph, devouring wheat and timber. Fires were reported in Colfax, Kahlotus, Basin City, Sprague, Davenport, Bridgeport, Prosser, Benton City, Omak, Inchelium and elsewhere.
Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to visit Malden and other fire-damaged areas of Eastern Washington later this week.
As of press time, fire officials had yet to determine the total acreage that burned on Labor Day. Local fire officials lost count of the Babb Fire size at 8,900 acres Monday.
The fire remained at zero percent containment Tuesday, with fire crews searching for opportunities to create fire breaks.
"Today, crews have been performing structure protection," McBride said, noting that Malden had "experienced significant structure loss."
By Monday evening, the fire had passed through the town of Pine City, where a grain elevator and several homes were destroyed.
"The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words," Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said. "The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime."
Shortly thereafter, St. John and Endicott called off school as the communities prepared for the wildfire to reach those communities. The town of Ewan was also preparing.
McBride said Tuesday afternoon that the advance of the fire had slowed with the winds and that the flames had not yet reached St. John, Ewan or Endicott.
Officials have yet to report any injuries or deaths.
"I just hope we don't find the fire took more than homes and buildings," Myers said. "I pray everyone got out in time."
Anyone who has a loved one not yet accounted for can contact the Whitman County Sheriff's Office at 509-397-6266.
Going door-to-door, Whitman County deputies evacuated the town before the fire arrived. They also drove through town making evacuation announcements from speakers on their vehicles.
Spokane County Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer initially took command of the fire. But with the request for state resources came an interagency wildfire command staff who set up a base camp in Colfax.
As fire officials were setting up camp, residents began returning to their homes.
Scott Carlon, who has lived part-time in Pine City for the last five years, returned to what was left of his historic home on Pine Creek.
Carlon's family has been a member of the community for generations.
"All of my family heirlooms were there," he said. "That's the sad part. The house can be rebuilt. But all the family photos of my dad and family from that era, there's nothing left there."
Carlon said he doesn't remember any fire like this in the community.
His wife, Heather, a Cheney native, said they were evacuated early afternoon.
"I wanted to stay, and I regret that I didn't," Scott Carlon said. "I don't know if I could've saved anything, but I could've tried."
Back in Malden, resident Shawn Heath returned to a home still standing.
"We evacuated from here this morning," he said. "We couldn't take all the kitties, but we took the two dogs and left."
His house was unscathed by the fire that burned the homes across the street and the timber behind his home.
"We're very thankful," he said, noting he evacuated to a family home in Cheney. "It's very surreal."
His wife, Rebekah, said she couldn't believe the damage.
The Heaths moved to town only a year ago; Rebekah is from Cheney.
"Our house, we had our kitties in there, we closed them up and they're all good and safe," she said.
The couple had planned to take the day off, they had gone to the store to pick up Funyons and hot Cheetos, when they were evacuated.
Their neighbor, Nan Cao, ran into town screaming for joy when he saw his house still standing.
Cao evacuated along with almost everyone in town after the Sheriff's Office came through.
"I was so scared. I could feel the ash on my skin. When I felt it on my skin, I knew it was late," he said. "It was my first time dealing with fire."
He moved to Malden two years ago and operates an online sales company.
"My neighbors' houses, all gone," he said, pointing across the street.
"I can't believe my house is still here. I did the right thing."
Cao said he left the garden hose running in his yard when he evacuated. The water from the hose kept the grass wet around the back of the house where fire moved through.
Embers had started small spot fires in areas that weren't wet.
Cao grabbed a bucket and dipped water out of a rain barrel to douse the small flames.
"There's nobody injured," he said of his neighbors. "It's good."