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News / Northwest

Eight people in Spokane County have died the last month in house fires. A Spokane father knows the pain from 29 years ago

By Alexandra Duggan, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 12, 2024, 5:31am

SPOKANE — An April wave of fatal house fires reminds Rob Schliebe exactly how he felt the day his four young boys were killed in his own house fire 29 years ago.

It was a Saturday night in October 1995. Schliebe fell asleep on the couch downstairs next to their master bedroom so he wouldn’t wake up his then-wife, Jill, when he left early in the morning for a hunting trip with his friends. All was quiet in the home at 1327 N. Adams St.

Until Schliebe awoke at 1:26 a.m. to his wife screaming.

The parents panicked and ran upstairs to the children’s two bedrooms to save them. Jill Schliebe told The Spokesman-Review in 1996 that she remembered grabbing two of her boys’ hands to lead them down the hallway — the only two she was able to try and save at the time — but their hands slipped away as flames and smoke overtook the stairwell.

They tried again to reach their boys as the fire exploded. With an unbearable choice to either stay and die, or become the only survivors, the couple decided to jump from a second-story window.

Witnesses at the time of the fire said the couple laid sprawled on the ground, pointing at the fire raging above them, screaming, “The kids! The kids!”

Rob Schliebe barely remembers anything from that day. The jump caused the couple injuries that landed them in the hospital for months — Jill Schliebe was burned with a dislocated hip, and Rob Schliebe was placed into a medically induced coma. He didn’t realize his boys, 8-year-old Derek, 6-year-old Loren, 4-year-old Steven and 2-year-old Justin, were dead until he woke up from his coma.

“It wasn’t until the hospital that I really truly knew,” Schliebe said.

For the last 29 years, he has thought himself into oblivion over the things he could have done. He ruminates on the “what-ifs” and the “how comes.”

“We did a lot of things wrong,” Schliebe said. The couple could have closed the bedroom doors while the family slept, which fire departments recommend doing in order to contain a fire to one room. And they could have had a working smoke detector in the home, on which Schliebe said he reflects often.

“It’s so easy to get busy in life and not think about changing a 9-volt battery in a smoke detector,” he said. “It was a big push even back then to check smoke detectors. Here we are 29 years later, and people die.”

The string of April house fires in Spokane County have left eight people dead, and more displaced, with no specific trend noted from fire officials. Electrical problems and smoke alarms raise concerns in four recent large fires within the county, however.

“It’s hard to explain recent electrical fires,” Spokane Fire Department spokesperson Justin de Ruyter said. Sometimes fires happen in waves, he said. Other times, it’s quiet.

Fire District 10 Chief Don Malone said eight deaths seem out of the “norm” and definitely “out of the ordinary.”

“It just seems much higher in a smaller amount of time,” Malone said.

The pattern also seems cyclical, Lt. Fire Investigator Shane Sanders said. Last year, fire numbers were down.

“This year, there’s no rhyme or reason for it,” Sanders said. “There are so many ways a fire can start.”

The incidents include:

  • April 4: 53-year-old Ronnie Doud died in a house fire on West Whitetip Avenue in Airway Heights. Officials didn’t find any working smoke alarms. The cause is still under investigation.
  • April 9:10 people were displaced at an apartment complex at the intersection of West 8th Avenue and South Jefferson Street. The fire started on the third floor of the complex and left one man with mild smoke inhalation and burns. The cause was an electrical accident, according to the Spokane Fire Department.
  • April 15: Six Gonzaga University students were displaced in a similar fire on East Augusta Avenue. Investigators said it was caused by an accidental electrical failure that began in the bathroom on the second floor.
  • April 20: The four members of the Desislets family, including their children, ages 2 and 7, died after a fire started from an older extension cord on the side of the house, engulfed the garage, front porch and spread to the second floor. No working smoke alarms were found in the home.
  • April 29: A couple died when their home caught fire in Chattaroy. Firefighters located a man at the back of the home and a woman at the front door. The man died at the scene, and the woman was airlifted to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she died the next day. Investigators determined the fire was accidental and caused by an electrical malfunction. No working smoke alarms were found in the home.
  • April 29: A fire erupted at a U.S. Bank branch on 29th Avenue and appeared to start in the attic, de Ruyter said at the scene. The roof collapsed on two firefighters who made it out safely. No cause has been identified.
  • April 30: One man died in a house fire on N. Park Street in Newman Lake, which was later ruled as an accidental fire. The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet released his identity.

The leading cause for fires in the city of Spokane are incendiary fires, or fires that are caused from someone knowing the danger of starting a fire and doing it anyway. Not all of them include arson, de Ruyter said. Sometimes it can include warming fires from the unhoused population getting out of control or an illegal burn on a property.

The second leading cause is accidental fires, which include electrical fires, de Ruyter said. The fire department sees a lot of fires caused by portable heaters in the winter, and fires from AC units in the summer when the unit is strained, he said. In Spokane Valley, there is no “common cause” for fires, department spokesperson Patrick Erikson said. In April, Spokane Valley firefighters responded to a total of six structure fires with a full response and five with a single-engine response, he said.

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In three of the fatal fires from April, working smoke alarms were not found in the home.

Most homes Malone sees do have working smoke alarms, he said, but not everyone changes the batteries in a timely manner. The best time to update smoke alarm batteries is after a time change, he said, or every six months to a year. Most people don’t wake up to the smell of smoke, and the poisonous gases emitting from the fire can sometimes put people into a deeper sleep, according to the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s website, which is why working smoke alarms can be the difference between life or death in a fast-moving fire.

Ultimately, April was a busy fire month for Spokane and Spokane County.

“It comes in waves,” Sanders said.

“You never know how a fire is going to start. But if you have that advanced warning, you can get you and your family out.”

The fire that killed Derek, Loren, Steven and Justin 29 years ago was believed to have been caused by a candle downstairs, but Rob Schliebe said it was just a best guess.

The fire was ruled undetermined, he said.

He since has installed windows in his basement and consistently checks his smoke alarms, but nothing will bring his children back.

He still experiences triggering emotions whenever he reads the names of his four sons in news reports about other fires, he said.

He and Jill have divorced, and he has not had any more children.

“There’s still hard times,” Schliebe said. “There’s birthdays and Christmases. Christmas is the hardest, because two of the kids’ birthdays were in December. Some days are worse than others.”

He also discovered one of the Desislets’ children, 7-year-old Christopher, attended Holmes Elementary school. It’s the same school his children went to before they died, he said.

Schliebe’s old home was in the same area of the Desislets’ home, too — a heartbreaking realization for Schliebe that links two tragedies together over decades apart.

No one is immune to tragedy, he said, because no one ever thinks it’ll happen to them until it does.

“There’s so much truth to going home and loving your family,” he said. “I had a horrible tragedy, but I’ve been able to pick up the pieces somehow. Somehow, I’ve been able to continue with life.”