Report On Malden Fire Brings Closure, Questions

May 20, 2021

A  home and vehicles that were burned when a wildfire raged through Malden.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Residents of the town of Malden in Whitman County finally know the cause of the fire that destroyed their homes last Labor Day, and they say that knowledge has helped them move forward, but also left them with questions.

During a town recovery meeting Wednesday night, town leaders shared the results of a Washington State Department of Natural Resources investigation into the fire. The agency found that a limb from a damaged Ponderosa Pine tree hit an Avista power line, sparking the blaze. The fire was fueled by 50 miles per an hour winds and consumed more than 15,000 acres, including Malden and Pine City.

“This will allow for there to be some closure in some instances, but also some significant financial help in others. I find it very encouraging, and look forward to seeing how the report is useful for the recovery in the future.”

That’s Mark Posthuma, one of the board members overseeing the recovery effort. A few houses have been rebuilt due to grants, and charitable efforts, but many residents are still living in camp trailers and have limited access to showers, or laundry.

In an email, an Avista spokesperson said the utility is still analyzing the report, but noted the branch came from a tree outside of the utility’s maintenance area, and does not believe the fire was caused by deficiencies in maintenance, equipment or vegetation management practices.

Scott Hokonson, a town councilman and leader in the recovery effort, said the report left him with mixed feeling. He said he’s appreciated Avista’s donations and other assistance it’s offered to the community, but hopes that now the report is out, they will take more responsibility.

“Avista saying this is perfectly fine, and saying this is within their limits of what is ok, this says to me this could happen again to us, this could happen to another community. There’s a lot of PTSD involved, and you start to wonder what is safe, to the parameters of these maintenance areas need to be expanded.”

He has forwarded the report to Washington’s Congressional delegation, and the governor’s office for the state Attorney General to review.