Stories in this Regional News Roundup are excerpted from weekly newspapers from around the region. This is part one, with part two set to appear in Sunday’s Tribune.
MALDEN — Controversy continues over whether the Malden siren should have been used to warn the town during the Labor Day fire.
The siren and the fire station burned, along with 70 percent of the town’s structures.
The fire call went out that day at 11:58 a.m.
Arriving at the station were two volunteer firefighters. One was sent to knock on doors while the other, Dan Harwood, former 16-year Malden chief, went up to sound the siren for an extended warning.
“I pushed the button and nothing happened. There was no electricity,” he said. “It’s just what happened. As volunteers, we try our best. I went up, I hit the button and nothing happened. I continued to do what I was asked to do, that is to go down and fill fire trucks until I was directed to evacuate like everybody else.”
The fire trucks were out-of-town units coming in to be refilled to return to fighting the fire approaching Malden.
Days later, at a town meeting, residents called for answers as to why the siren did not sound.
“It’s sort of a misnomer. When it came out in the meeting, it was frustration,” said Bill Tensfeld, Whitman County Emergency Management director.
Some people questioned the significance of using the noon siren for an emergency.
“I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for you,” said Tensfeld. “It’s an armchair quarterback thing, it’s hindsight. The townspeople didn’t have time to get their fire truck out of the station. The sheriff had three deputies on loudspeakers telling everyone to get out. I don’t think you can get more forewarning than that.”
Current Malden Fire Chief Chad Fanara was out on a Rosalia truck on Labor Day. He is a member of both departments.
“It was going 40 mph through the fields with 40-50-foot flame-lengths,” said Tensfeld. “The first fire crews on the scene couldn’t keep up with it. Almost like chasing a bird.”
Tensfeld noted all aircraft options were grounded because of the windy conditions. He first tried to order an aircraft that morning for the fire in Colfax.
The siren wouldn’t change firefighters’ response times. Malden volunteer firefighters are called to incidents by phones and radios.
The Malden noon siren is only turned off for a few days in June each year when the John Wayne Trailriders come through town to avoid disturbing the horses.
On Labor Day, it started with a WHITCOM dispatch call to a 100-foot-by-100-foot fire on Babb Road.
“Regardless if the siren went off or not, it wouldn’t have stopped the fire going through town,” said Fanara.
Malden’s siren was used four years ago for a fire. When sounded for an evacuation warning, the siren blared for an extended time. A regular noon blast lasts less than 30 seconds.
The siren has no option to hand-crank it for operation.
“If it worked, it would’ve given people a little more time to maybe grab a couple extra items, but it’s hard to say,” Fanara said. “It wouldn’t have kept people’s houses from burning.”
With Malden’s fire station burnt, Fanara noted the department is eligible for matching grants to rebuild, but needs to gather the matching funds first.
“I’d like to see it rebuilt,” he said. “And a siren hooked into some type of generator or something like that, but we didn’t have that before. I think it’s important, but whether or not it happens, it’s kind of up in the air.”
The importance of the siren isn’t connected to what happened.
“The significant thing is, I think that Malden had a tremendous disaster,” Harwood said. “There wasn’t a fire department in the country that could’ve stopped it, because there were fire departments that tried.”
— Garth Meyer, Whitman County Gazette (Colfax), Thursday