MALDEN, Wash. — FEMA granted public assistance nearly five months after hurricane-force winds sent the Babb Road wildfire ripping through Malden and Pine City, destroying nearly everything in its path.
The money will help rebuild infrastructure, including government buildings and roads, but the federal agency denied the communities individual assistance that would help families rebuild their homes. KREM 2 investigated why those funds were denied.
What happened when the fire started on Labor Day
The Babb Road Fire destroyed 85 percent of the homes in Malden—turning the world upside down for hundreds of people.
"That is a day my wife and I will never forget,” Scott Carlon of Pine City said. “It is just emblazoned in our collective memories. I can just visualize and feel every second of when we got the alert we needed to leave town."
The post office is now only recognized by the singed sign above the door. Flames even consumed Malden's fire station and only fire truck. That day, families ran for their lives.
"It was very, very scary,” Malden residentd Heidi Lindgren said. “I'm glad that everyone survived.”
Dan Harwood is Malden’s interim Mayor. On the day of the fire, he was at the fire station filling trucks with water. By the time he arrived, the fire was only a few blocks away.
"You're facing the beast, and you know that your family is down there and it absolutely is terrifying,” Hardwood said. “There's firefighters that are coming in and doing remarkable work. But when you have the devil himself coming up, and you know the flames were 60, 70, 100 feet high and the wind was 60 plus miles an hour."
Photos: Malden, Washington burned after wildfire on Labor Day
Harwood and his family made it out safely, along with the rest of Malden and Pine City. But the damage left behind was gut-wrenching.
"That first week after the fire was just heartbreaking and devastating,” Carlon said. “I remember looking into the foundation…I was praying to God, ‘Where do I even start?’ And then I had this thought come into my head: one brick at a time, one branch at a time."
Moving forward, one step at a time is a common thought among families in both cities.
Scott Carlon and his family spent about three back breaking months cleaning up the burned-out debris at his historic Pine City home. They had their foundation removed in January.
"We're so glad to have that old carcass is gone, even though we sure miss that house, and get ready to rebuild,” Carlon said.
For many families affected by the Babb Road fire, it has not been easy waiting for help to come.
FEMA approves public assistance, denies individual assistance
On Feb. 4, FEMA finally approved Washington Governor Jay Inslee's request for Public Assistance in Whitman County — along with nine other counties and two tribes. Public Assistance will help rebuild public infrastructure damaged by the fire. This includes government buildings, power lines, and roads.
That was an emotional day for Malden, according to Harwood.
"We've had folks come in today, and they've had tears in their eyes,” Harwood said. “I mean this is, this is huge."
Only a few days later, FEMA denied the state's request for Individual assistance in Whitman County. That federal aid would have given families access to grants to rebuild their home or use for a down payment.
Mayor Harwood told KREM 2’s Amanda Roley this would have benefitted 60 percent of people who did not have adequate home insurance or did not have it at all.
"Malden has been kind of slapped in the face with this,” Harwood said. “That’s how I feel.”
Governor Inslee's Office said it does not plan to appeal this decision because, historically, appeals are not successful.
FEMA said the Babb Road Fire impact was not severe enough to warrant individual assistance.
We asked FEMA to clarify why Whitman County was denied this funding.
Turns out, the approval process for Individual assistance requires FEMA to evaluate six declaration factors.
FEMA explains decision to deny individual assistance
FEMA’s Individual Assistance is made available when the damage is so severe and widespread that the state and local agencies cannot meet residents' needs.
In other words, the federal agency will not grant Individual Assistance if it finds the state has the resources to help residents recover from a natural disaster.
In 2014, a major landslide in Oso, Washington destroyed 40 homes. FEMA approved individual assistance for this event.
Malden did not get this funding even though the Babb Road Fire destroyed 121 structures, including commercial buildings and dozens of other structures.
When asked about this inconsistency, FEMA Regional 10 External Affairs Director Ryan Ike said, “First of all, we don't look at or compare one disaster to another we always evaluate the damages that occurred in this particular event. What we do look at the concentration damages as you indicated, we look at casualties if that happened we looked at the insurance, and the availability of additional resources that may be available to the state, but ultimately we are evaluating the Whitman County case just based on the information that was available for that fire.”
He adds insurance availability is an important factor in its evaluation. But he did not explain how this affected FEMA’s decision in this case.
“I'll just say that the availability of insurance and certainly the having an insurance policy is going to be the best solution,” Ike said.
FEMA did approve Individual assistance for eight Oregon counties impacted by wildfires in 2020, but none in Washington. Some victims in Malden and Pine City believe FEMA is letting them down.
“I would say that the damages that were sustained are incredible and our hearts go out to that to the folks who are affected by this,” Ike said. “Ultimately, the insurance is going to be the best solution for recovery.
It is still not clear which of FEMA’s six evaluating factors led the agency to deny individual assistance to Whitman County. KREM 2 has submitted a public records request for the report.
Fire victims moving forward thanks to the kindness of others
The Malden and Pine City communities are now moving forward with assistance from the Small Business Administration. It made a disaster declaration, provides low interest loans for home rebuilding and personal property replacement for those who qualify.
But perhaps most of all, they are relying on each other—with small acts of kindness that are having a big impact.
In fact, Mayor Harwood recently received an unexpected delivery while walking through the heart of Malden: Some Oreos and $1,200 check.
“There’s not enough ways in the world I can say how humbled and how honored we are that people have taken the time to bring us Oreos and an envelope,” Harwood said.
This was not the first, and surely will not be the last show of support here. But as Malden and Pine City work to rebuild, they know the community will rise again.
“We've gone to hell. We've seen it, we burned. Now we're going to rise up,” Harwood said. “And, as they say, out of the ashes comes a Phoenix. Well, our Malden is, is our Phoenix.”