Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Labor Day Fire Storm Destroys Homes, Burns Thousands Of Acres Across The Northwest

caption: Firefighters work a fast-moving fire Sept. 7, 2020, that started in Spokane County and moved to Whitman County, destroying much of the town of Malden.
Enlarge Icon
Firefighters work a fast-moving fire Sept. 7, 2020, that started in Spokane County and moved to Whitman County, destroying much of the town of Malden.
Spokane County Fire District 8

Labor Day 2020 lived up to its name if you’re a firefighter. It was a day that set up for numerous fires in central and eastern Washington that have burned tens of thousands of acres, and possibly many more.

At least 80 fires started in Washington in what officials call a historic fire event.

The Whitman County town of Malden, population about 200 people, was largely destroyed from a fast-moving fire.

The fire was at the Malden city limits about 1:30 p.m. Monday. An hour later, the entire town was engulfed, according to Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers.

“And when you have winds blowing 45 to 50 mile-an-hour and you have dry timber, dry grass everywhere, and a fire that’s consuming almost everything in its path … It’s definitely a scary situation,” Myers told the public media Northwest News Network Monday night.

Cold Springs Fire

Additionally, multiple large fires across Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan counties prompted hundreds of evacuations.

The fires started spreading across the state in the early morning, and kept running. The Cold Springs Fire burning in Okanogan and Douglas counties ran an estimated 60 miles north to south in just about 20 hours.

“In my 34-year fire-management career, I haven’t seen anything like that,” said Russ Lane, a fire manager with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “Really our actions are limited to keeping people out of harm’s way and working the edges of the fire as best we can.” Lane says Monday was a “frustrating day” for firefighters who have had little air support. Planes and helicopters have been grounded because of the strong gusts, blowing smoke and sand.

"I'm sick, the amount of new fires today is unreal. Early estimates figure 288K acres burned today across the state," Washington state fire meteorologist Josh Clark said on Twitter Monday night. "Numerous homes and property destroyed, 30K+ without power.Every one of these was 100% human-caused and therefore 100% preventable."

The impact of the Cold Springs Fire on the towns of Bridgeport and Mansfield was still being assessed late Monday night. Both towns faced Level 3 “Get Out Now” evacuations on Monday.

Perfect Storm

It was the perfect storm of conditions – and not in a good way.

First, it’s been extremely dry in the past month. All those fuels have been ready to burn for weeks. Second, the recent above-average temperatures primed the pump. Then on Labor Day came strong winds out of the north that ensured any current fires or new starts would take off fast. And that is exactly what happened.

These are the kinds of conditions that made 2014 and the Carlton Complex and 2015 for the Chelan and Okanogan Complex fires so bad.

To cap things now, the Evans Canyon Fire in central Washington was already stretching fire resources statewide heading into the weekend – having burned nearly 75,000 acres in less than a week, with nearly 800 personnel assigned to the fire ahead of the Labor Day weekend. The past several weeks have seen numerous massive fires not just in Washington, but across the West, especially California.

In response, the fire preparedness level for the Northwest was raised to a level 5 – the highest possible level.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency Aug. 19 due to critical fire danger, activating National Guard resources.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Why you can trust KUOW