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Wildfire Devastates Washington Town Of Malden

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Pacific Northwest was hot, dry and windy this holiday weekend. And that explosive mix of weather helped fuel wildfires throughout the region. Evacuations are in place in many towns throughout Oregon and Washington. And the city of Malden, Wash., was almost completely burned to the ground yesterday. Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers responded to the fire, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

BRETT MYERS: Happy to be here.

CHANG: Well, I know that you were on the ground yesterday helping with the evacuation. Can you just give us a sense of - what did it look and what did it sound like?

MYERS: I mean, as you come into the town, it was more homes on fire than there were standing. So it was - for every three or four homes that were literally being burnt to the ground, there would be one home still standing. And there were people watering down their property, doing what they could. Those people that had some green and some buffer around their home were able to maintain their homes.

CHANG: Watering down their homes, though, with what - garden hoses?

MYERS: With garden hoses, yeah. And the thing is, at that point, you just got to encourage those people to do what they think is best. That's not a time for me to negotiate over somebody. If they want to stay there and they're winning the fight, more power to them. But for those people that decided there was no way they were going to win that, they got out of town. And, you know, I can tell you anytime you're engulfed at times by smoke to where you can't see in front of you, fire encroaching right on the road, houses that when you drove by, the inside of your vehicle would heat up 30, 50 degrees just instantly - the intensity of that fire was pretty close to a war zone.

CHANG: Well, can you estimate for me - what percentage of the town is still standing?

MYERS: It's hard to say. I - when I went back up this morning, it looks like maybe about 20% of the town is still standing.

CHANG: That's it.

MYERS: If - I don't have an exact number of the homes yet. But, you know, it's easy to say that if there was a hundred homes in Malden, 80 of them have burned to the ground.

CHANG: And how long do you think it took for the fire to devour some 80% of the town?

MYERS: From the time it got to the city limits to the time it was through the town was maybe 2 1/2 hours. And then the fire burned the rest of the night. But most of the homes that caught on fire caught on fire within two to three hours at the very most.

CHANG: And do authorities have a clear idea of what specifically caused the fire?

MYERS: That is still under investigation. So, you know, you have a lot of farmland around here, high winds. You have a highway that goes through there. Is it a spark from a car? Is it something that happened, you know, in a field? Is it a cigarette that went out the window? That one might - we might not ever know. But we do know the approximate location where the fire started.

CHANG: Well, what does the county need most from the state and federal level at this point?

MYERS: You know, at this point, the big issue is that we're not the only place that's being impacted. We're the only place that lost an entire community, but there's big fires going on everywhere in Washington and Oregon - and so just making sure we have the resources we have and that we can get these fires put down.

I think one of the things, too, that we see around the country and around the West are so many of our small towns are staffed with, you know, volunteer fire department, too. They have different careers, different jobs, and they give up their time. And I got to be honest with you. The amount of people that dropped everything they had to do - from farmers to firemen from all other agencies - that came to help was, you know, an awesome sight. And that's one of the things that living in small rural communities we see. But the graciousness of the people that did everything they could to help people - it warms your heart.

And when there's a question today whether or not, you know, society is losing grip, all you have to do is be in one of these small towns and watch people go out of their way to help other people. And you get a little bit of respect back for...

CHANG: Yeah.

MYERS: ...And a little bit the hope back for our human race.

CHANG: That's good to hear despite what has happened.

MYERS: Yeah.

CHANG: Brett Myers is the sheriff of Whitman County.

Thank you very much for joining us today, and I wish you and the community the best of luck.

MYERS: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

CHANG: And just a note that, as of airtime, no deaths have been confirmed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.