Malden, Pine City mark first anniversary of Babb Road Fire

Communities ravaged by fire host Labor Day celebration, still recovering



Upper Columbia Academy Pathfinders raise a new flag over the town of Malden, signifying a new age, one year after the Babb Road Fire engulfed the valley.

NICK GIBSON, Evergreen roots editor

The Malden and Pine City communities celebrated Labor Day on Sept. 6, marking the first anniversary of the Babb Road Fire. 

“This event is two-fold: on one hand, it’s a remembrance of what was lost and on the other, it shows how we’re moving forward,” Malden Mayor Dan Harwood said. 

On Sept. 7, 2020, the Babb Road Fire ripped through the towns of Malden and Pine City in a manner of minutes, destroying 80 percent of the towns’ structures and burning nearly 20,000 acres. The fire displaced around 200 residents, many of which are still grappling with the aftermath of the flames. 

Roughly 70 people gathered at the site of the old Fire Station in Malden early Monday morning for a flag presentation by the Upper Columbia Academy Pathfinders and Adventures, a Seventh-Day Adventist group. One of the few things to survive the fire that day was the flag flying in front of the fire station, which the Pathfinders retired and replaced. 

Harwood thanked the Pathfinders and the many other organizations that are assisting in the rebuilding process. He noted that although it was a devastating event for the community, there was no loss of life that day. 

Following the ceremony, visitors gathered in Malden City Park for a barbecue cookout and ice cream, where residents shared their memories of the town and reflected on the ongoing rebuilding process. Harwood said it is nice to see how far they have come, but they still have a long way to go. 

Restoration efforts in Malden were slow following the fire. For months, former President Donald Trump refused to declare a major disaster and provide FEMA aid at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee. President Joe Biden finally approved a presidential disaster declaration in February, 151 days after the fire tore through the valley. 

The first step in the restoration process, cleaning up the debris, wrapped up this week. Temporary laundry and shower facilities were also recently installed, serving community members living in 23 mobile homes and RVs around the valley. Malden resident John Bliesner is one of many who lost his home in the Babb Road Fire and is now living in one of those RVs with his wife, Carolyn.

“It didn’t spare anything,” Bliesner said. “My two cats, all our photos, my wife’s medical equipment: it took it all.” 

The day of the fire, Bliesner was sitting at home, watching tv with his wife when they started hearing orders to evacuate. He said they just returned from a craft show in the neighboring city, Spangle, and mentioned that on the ride home they noticed how hard the wind was blowing. 

At first, Bliesner said they only faintly heard the orders coming from volunteer firefighters sweeping the area and did not think much of it. 

“I stepped outside and smelt some smoke and saw the train of cars and figured we needed to go,” he said. “I had faith they’d put it out so I didn’t grab anything; I thought we’d be back.” 

Bliesner lost all his belongings and the home he lived in since the early 90s, when he first moved from Spokane looking for affordable housing. Bliesner did not have homeowners insurance, like many residents who lost their homes in the fire, and had to rely on aid from various organizations. 

Bliesner said he recently got approval to finance a double-wide trailer for him and his wife, which will be ready in November, just in time for the colder months.

Despite securing housing, Bliesner is not the only resident anxious for the coming winter. Harwood stressed the need for safe, secure housing.

“We didn’t lose a single person in the fire,” Harwood said. “It would absolutely break my heart to lose someone in an RV this winter, whether it be carbon monoxide from a generator or just the cold.”