‘Camaraderie’ of local groups to help with recovery from recent fires in county

About $175,000 raised for Whitman County Fire Community Relief Fund



People in shock after the fires took their homes received food, clothing, bed and toiletries from local clubs and churches.

LOREN NEGRON, Evergreen editor-in-chief

When fires ravaged the towns of Malden and Pine City, Rosalia residents helped each other evacuate while local clubs and churches set up donation sites and shelters within hours for the survivors.

“We talk of first responders, and we think those are the firefighters,” said Barbara Bothman, Rosalia Lions Club president. “But here in Rosalia, the first responders are the neighbors, the farmers with the tractors. They saved so many homes.”

The club received permission from the Rosalia City Council to use the town’s community center as a donation site. Rosalia’s churches were overflowing with donations so they needed more space to store supplies, said Linda Pritchett, Rosalia Lions Club secretary.

“In the first few days, people were in shock. They were coming in [at the community center] with blank stares,” Pritchett said. “They didn’t even know where to begin. They were just devastated.”

Many of the residents in Rosalia and the surrounding towns know each other. It is comforting for survivors to receive help from people they know, she said.

Bothman and Pritchett both live on Babbs Road, where the Malden fire originated. They panicked because their homes were situated near the fire, and they had to evacuate their homes, Bothman said.

“I have five minutes to get what I need, and you realize there are things that are irreplaceable,” Pritchett said. “But in the end, your family is all that matters.”

One of Rosalia’s churches immediately opened its congregation as a donation center and shelter. Within the first few hours of the Malden fire, The Harvest Assembly of God received many food, clothing, bed and toiletry donations, said Pastor Pat Atchison.

The church’s second floor is used as a shelter, Atchison said, while the main floor acts as a donation site. Church members had to conduct their service in the church’s basement last weekend.

Atchison said he remembers the shock on people’s faces when they entered the church. Seeing the need and hurt in the community is overwhelming, he said, which makes the experience challenging at times.

“We just hug them, and we just cry with them,” he said, “and let them know that somebody’s there who really cares and that they have a safe place to be at this time.”

He said other churches provided aid to his congregation and to the community including Rosalia’s Community Baptist Church.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said most of the county’s law enforcement resources on Sept. 7 were focused on the Colfax fire. When news of the Malden fire reached his office that day, law enforcement was directed to Malden with the goal of notifying residents about the fire and helping with the evacuation.

“We were out there, and you saw that devastation,” Myers said. “You’re literally surrounded by 80 percent of homes in a small community just be ravaged, completely burned down.”

Law enforcement often deals with tragedies and is involved during people’s most difficult moments. Seeing the loss in Malden was devastating, he said, but witnessing the local community extend a helping hand was encouraging.

United Way of Whitman County developed the Whitman County Fire Community Relief Fund. Money from this fund will be used to help the long-term recovery efforts in areas affected by the fires, said Eric Fejeran, executive director of United Way of Whitman County.

As of Wednesday, United Way of Whitman County had raised about $175,000 for the relief fund, he said.

He said participating in relief efforts for natural disasters is a “new territory” for United Way of Whitman County. The group worked in coordination with other organizations, including the Rosalia Lions Club and the Colfax Eagles.

Even amid a pandemic and a divided political environment, community members made the effort to be generous and show support, Fejeran said.

“Just look at how the community pulls together during situations like this. It’s easy to focus on the bad,” he said. “But there is still good out there.”

Witnessing different groups work together to help the affected towns recover from the fires has been an eye-opening experience, said Liliana Fry, Colfax Eagles secretary.

“We definitely need these nonprofits in our community,” Fry said. “Without those nonprofits, I’m not sure there would be as many resources or ability to help as there is now.”

The Colfax Eagles had set aside water for an event but instead delivered it to officials who were fighting the fire in Colfax. Upon hearing of the Malden fire, Eagles members visited Rosalia, bringing food and other supplies with them, Fry said.

She said the fires brought the Eagles, Lions and Masons clubs together, with Colfax Eagles coordinating donations that needed to be sent to Rosalia. She said she anticipates the clubs will interact with each other more in the future.

“The camaraderie of coming together in service to others is amazing,” Bothman said.