Rural Washington Struggles After 'Blowtorch' Of A Wildfire The 2020 wildfire season is a grim reminder that disasters unfairly hit the poor and the elderly. Thousands of people on the West Coast still lack even temporary housing.

'Everything's Gone': Rural Washington Struggles After 'Blowtorch' Of A Wildfire

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The 2020 wildfire season illustrates how disasters are especially hard on the poor and the elderly. Thousands of people are still believed to be without even temporary housing, living in hotels or just camping. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from eastern Washington.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Malden, Wash., is a tiny farming town amidst oceans of wheat fields - or it was. Most of its 300 residents are like James Jacobs, who lost everything when a wildfire raced through here on Labor Day.

JAMES JACOBS: I didn't have insurance.

SIEGLER: No insurance - his home burned.

JACOBS: And we lost toolsheds and a motor home and vehicles, all kinds of power equipment. Everything's gone. Everything got completely lost.

SIEGLER: Jacobs is in his 80s. He's gaunt, and his wrinkled face is worn with stress. He and his wife, who's recovering from a stroke, moved here in 1994. It was an affordable place to retire, a friendly town in a pine-forested gulch surrounded by farms. Now Malden's only post office, its town hall, its library, fire station, its food bank - leveled. The church is still here, but its siding is melted and twisted.

JACOBS: This was so bad that on the second day when they allowed people in here, some - I understand a congresswoman showed up here, and she broke out in tears. She couldn't handle it.

SIEGLER: The devastation on the West Coast right now is hard to take in, and it can feel like most national leaders aren't paying as much attention as they might in a normal year. President Trump visited the West once, a brief stop at the Sacramento airport where he made rambling comments about the need to clean up leaves. It's mostly evergreen forests in the West. And anyway, the fire in Malden was a range fire in wheat fields driven by winds that folks here said they had never seen before.

JACOBS: There's no way that this could happen without a 50-mile-an-hour wind that made it act like a blowtorch.

SIEGLER: California and Oregon have received close to $30 million in federal aid so far. It's been slower to arrive in Washington, which has seen fewer fires. Now, Malden had an evacuation plan that was put together after a close call three years ago, and it may have saved lives.

SCOTT HOKONSON: That's what I wake up with, just wondering if we got everybody.

SIEGLER: Scott Hokonson is a town councilman and volunteer firefighter who raced door to door evacuating people. His voice shakes. He's traumatized.

HOKONSON: Yeah, I keep waiting to hear that there's a body or there's bones.

SIEGLER: But you have everybody accounted for.


SIEGLER: Hokonson also lost his house. It's a short drive away from a temporary trailer that's serving as the town's recovery center.

HOKONSON: Let's mask up and hop in. Sorry it's dirty. It's our one car left that didn't burn, so - yeah, if you want to - and I'll roll the windows down, too.


Hokonson points out the odd home here or there that was spared. Most had metal roofs. He says he'd like to see the town build back smarter, but it's hard to focus on that when so many people are in crisis right now.

HOKONSON: I'm one of those people. I'm thinking that too. What do we do in the short term? You know, where do we sleep tonight? So we can't stay in a hotel, eating pizza on a bed in 300 square feet forever.

SIEGLER: It's even more stressful in a pandemic, Hokonson says. People are already isolated.

LINDA PRITCHETT: Hello. How are you?

SIEGLER: This is tops on Linda Pritchett's mind. In the nearby town of Rosalia, which didn't burn, she set up a food and clothing donation center in the Lions Club.

PRITCHETT: You know, everybody's like, can - is it OK to have a hug with COVID? And I'm like, that's OK, you know? Right now that's a necessity.

SIEGLER: And there are good things happening here.

PRITCHETT: Now you have some dress clothes for church.


SIEGLER: Pritchett says she's overwhelmed with donations and support from people across the Northwest.

PRITCHETT: Didn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican - we were all just Americans helping each other. And that's all that mattered. And I just keep telling people there's more good people in this world than there's bad. And we just have to remember that.

SIEGLER: Right now she's focused on getting help to older folks like James Jacobs, who may be too proud to ask for it.

JACOBS: You can't look back at it all the time. It's getting better. You either give up or solve the problem.

SIEGLER: Jacobs says it's too expensive and tiring to rebuild, even if he had insurance, so he bought an RV.

JACOBS: Well, it's just my wife and myself, and that's plenty comfortable enough.

SIEGLER: He's getting it hooked up to his old sewer and power. Winter is coming.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Malden, Wash.

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