The Town is Gone

On Labor Day, three separate wildfires overtook Whitman County. 

Ushered in by a massive windstorm, the first sparked in downtown Colfax — directly above our office on Main Street. Two homes were quickly devoured by the flames, along with a large portion of the hillside on the West side of town. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and firefighters quelled the flames before they could reach the hospital and largest senior living community in town.

The second fire began north of Colfax, in the only truly woodsy part. There, it destroyed woodlands, running through grass and wheat stubble. The flames took to the Manning-Rye Covered Bridge, built in 1918 and one of the most beautiful photo ops in Whitman County.

Late that same morning, a downed power line triggered another fire just north of Rosalia, which sits about 25 minutes north of Colfax. Folks say the fire moved like a speeding car around Rosalia to the west before heading directly towards Malden and Pine City. Fire crews were stretched thin by this time, so firefighters came from Moscow, Idaho to help with the Colfax fires so the crews in Colfax could tend to the fire blazing in the north.

Aly Sterman spent the whole night answering the phone at the fire station while her husband, Ryan, was out fighting the fires in Colfax. She balanced her newborn baby, Ember, on her knee while she worked.

What we saw on social media and heard on our scanners was unimaginable. The fire was overtaking the town of Malden and destroying homes in Pine City as well.

“Stop what you are doing now,” Brett Myers, the Whitman County Sheriff, told the county’s farmers amid the blaze. “There are no resources left if you have a field fire.”

With winds still blowing over 40 miles per hour, there was little that the firefighters could do to stop it before it engulfed the entire town. Town Hall, the library, and 100 out of an estimated 127 homes were lost. Our tiny Malden Food Pantry turned to rubble in mere minutes.

A day passed before the fire was reasonably under control.

After the fire

As soon as we were able to venture out, agencies all over the Palouse and beyond went to work to find ways we could help. I worked every network we had, letting folks know that along with the majority of Malden, our food pantry had been overtaken by the flames. I learned that two out of our three amazing community members who run the Malden Food Pantry had lost their homes and all their possessions. The other member had lost all of his outbuildings containing 40 years of his life inside. Thankfully, no lives were lost.

Many of us in the nonprofit world, myself included, are great at getting things done when there is an acute need. I might even say I love being given this type of opportunity to help. But the situation in Malden was different. We couldn’t just send things to Malden to make life easier for those who lost their homes or who now didn’t know what to do or where to go. The town was gone. There was no place to store food for the hungry and no town hall or meeting room to gather folks in to find out what they needed.

Nothing.

Ryan Sterman fighting the fires that overtook Whitman County on Labor Day.

Two days after the fires, we were finally able to reach the town clerk in Malden, Jenna, who told me that what they really needed was a refrigerated truck. They had food coming for residents, but nowhere to store it so that it didn’t perish. So, I did what I do, and I went to work. I got in touch with the WSDA, who jumped into action to help us however they could. They not only went looking for a refrigerated truck, but also sent for food and other items that folks in Malden and Pine City needed.

I worked every network that I could think of in hopes of finding a truck. It is not that easy to find one that no one is using and that someone is willing to deliver and leave for an indefinite time. Finally, I reached out through our Facebook page and, low and behold, got a call a half hour later from Victory Transport up in Spokane who brought a unit down to Malden that evening.

Helpers will always be helpers

The week following the fires was emotional for the entire county —sometimes because of the devastation that occurred, but mostly because of the response we witnessed in its wake. The size and scope of help that arrived in Whitman County within just a few days was shocking. One of our past donors reached out to send us $5,000 for the Malden community. The WSDA delivered food to make sure that we had enough to feed those in Malden who needed it. Others sent gas cards, gift cards, and cash. Donated food, clothing and household goods filled at least four separate locations around the county. I heard that Avista Utilities sent almost a hundred crews to get power back in Malden within just days of the fire. I even saw on the news that Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, provided Malden residents with internet service through a satellite pilot program.

Witnessing this, it became clear to me that helpers will always be helpers. And I do not mean myself or my staff, though we feel good about what we could do to help. I’m thinking of Lori D., who ran our Malden Pantry and who escaped the fires with her 86-year-old mother, leaving behind everything she owned, including her deceased Veteran husband’s flag. She has now taken it upon herself to take care of the 20 or so families staying at the hotel the Red Cross provided up in Spokane, “because these are [her] people.” I think of Paul K., who works for Avista Utilities and is a next-level community supporter. He spent day after day up in Malden, away from his own home and office, making sure that power was restored as quickly as possible. Then there is Connie S., who works for Northwest Harvest and, while on vacation, arranged for fresh fruit to be delivered for the children of displaced families because she heard there was a lack of child-friendly food at the hotel. These folks, and so many more, went above and beyond to do what they could for the Malden community who lost every single thing they owned; vehicles, family pets and livestock, and in many cases, their family history in the homes they have owned for generations.

I am happy, and a little surprised, to report that Malden says they will rebuild. Clean-up and excavation is already underway. And, in case the rest of this story doesn’t touch your heart, an excavation company found a couple of charred pieces of Lori’s husband’s flag which they put it in a little box and gave to her this week.

 

 


Paige CollinsPaige Collins serves on the board of Washington Nonprofits. Paige ran the Providence Regina House food and clothing banks in Seattle for almost 8 years and provided leadership to the Seattle Food Committee, a coalition of 27 food banks. She moved to Eastern Washington to work for Northwest Harvest, and then became the Executive Director of the Council on Aging & Human Services, located in Colfax, Washington in 2015. The Council on Aging & Human Services supports 11 Whitman County food pantries, facilitates six senior/community meal programs, and provides ‘meals-on-wheels’ for both Colfax and Pullman. The Council on Aging’s Coast Transportation division provides fare-free, public transportation for anyone with a special need for a ride. She serves on the Executive Board of the Washington Food Coalition and as an Advisory Board member for the Washington State University Center for Civic Engagement. She is a founding member and two-term Chair of the Whitman County Food Coalition, and in her spare time runs Happy Pastures Livestock Rescue with her husband in LaCrosse.

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