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Malden wildfire hits home for former local bus driver

Nellie Flatt’s home in Malden, Wash., burned to the ground in a wind driven wild fire on Sept. 7, 2020.  She lost all her belongings, her pictures and mementos but amazingly didn’t lose her smile or sense of humor.  

She drove a school bus for almost 35 years between Clarkston and Asotin. She used to square dance 4-5 nights a week until COVID changed that routine.

“I feel like flushing away the rest of this year and starting over, even at age 81,” she said. “This year was crazy enough just with COVID but to add a fire on top is enough to make one batty.”

Nellie said she’s been so blessed with people reaching out, even friends she hadn’t talked to or thought about for 25 years.

Everyone that knows Nellie knows she has an infectious smile and upbeat spirit. She said, “I had 81 years of my life just go down the tube, but I have my life and my daughter has her life, and nobody in Malden or Pine City has lost their life, so you’ve gotta be happy with what you have left – your family and your friends.”  

Nellie's beautiful home before the fire.

'It was just really, really fast'

Nellie’s day started on a normal windy day when she heard about a fire on the other side of the airport, about 3 miles out of town. There had been previous fires before in the wheat country.

The neighbors said maybe we’d better look at getting things ready just in case we need to leave, and I figured there was no harm in getting just a few things ready,” she said. “I have a suitcase packed because I’m always on the run. I grabbed my medication from the refrigerator, and got ready. As we were leaving from the porch, the officials were coming through town and told us we had to evacuate now because the fire is coming. It was just really, really fast.”

Nellie said she didn’t hesitate to follow directions to evacuate. “My mindset was that you need to obey when they tell you to do something,” she said. “I figured that we’d go away overnight and the next morning we would come back and everything would be OK. But then the next morning came and all the houses on my side of the street had went down.”

Nellie's home after the fire.

Time to see Tina about insurance claim

Nellie said her “go to girl” at American Insurance has always been agent Tina Heitmann and she also appreciates Lisa Gludt at the front desk.   

I just have a blast and I have to raise a little Cane to let them know I’m still here,” she said. “Tina is just a peach and so helpful. She started things rolling for me and I immediately got in contact with a young man who was doing the emergency help. I had a check for clothing and incidentals in the first week and a half just to get things started.”

Nellie’s homeowners insurance policy is in Nationwide Insurance and she says it has been really good.

“I’ve been treated absolutely fabulous by the insurance company,” she concluded. “You hear horror stories, but knock on wood everything has been absolutely great. I’ve been very happy with the way I’ve been treated and how fast they’ve been moving. It makes me feel good to know I have a good insurance policy, since I’ve been treated very well.” 

Agent Tina Heitmann & Nellie talk insurance.

Nellie knows it could have been much worse and she has been very blessed to see how her friendships she's built over the years have helped her during this loss.

“I have a lot more friends and family who really respected me for what I’ve done over the years and how I’ve effected the kids, so it really makes you feel good, even when the memories are all that you’ve got left,” she said about her experiences in the LC valley.

Challenges for all area residents

 She said one challenge has been trying to find temporary housing – somewhere that she can rent but not buy near the Malden, Cheney, Spangle or Rosalia area.

“I haven’t found anything yet but everyone is looking for houses for rent,” she said, adding that there are only 38 homes left out of about 190 in Malden. Some homeowners have moved a travel trailer onto their lot, but that’s not what interests her.

“I like it down here (in the LC valley) but my daughter is up there (in Malden), so I’d rather be where she’s at,” she said.

Nellie plans to rebuild her home on the same place where her home once stood.

“I’ve had to bear with some old asbestos on the siding so I’m trying to figure out what you’re allowed or not allowed to do. Some of the people are going ahead and working on their homes and they don’t have insurance, so I can’t blame them, but I don’t want to screw up my insurance so I’m kind of at a standstill right now.”

What would you grab from your home? 

John B. Sullivan, American Insurance CEO, said that a total fire loss can be such a crushing thing, but Nellie's attitude in the aftermath is phenomenal. 

He asked her if there is anything that she would have done different after all that has happened.

“I would have had more time and grabbed some other things, but I didn’t but so my life was the most important part of it,” she concluded. “It would have been nice to grab some photographs and other things, like my husband’s weapons that were in the gun safe, for one. I did grab one packet of checks out of my stack in the safe, some extra money and my passport.”