FRUITLAND, Wash. – With fire descending upon them, Larry Lehrbas didn’t respond when his wife called.
It was 10 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 14, and Lehrbas had gone to move a tractor into the middle of an empty field on his property near Fruitland.
All loaded and ready to leave, his wife, Rose, called his name from their car. She told him to hurry. The forest fire was nearing their home.
“It was a wall of fire,” Rose Lehrbas said. “He parked the Cat, and then he didn’t come to the car.”
Rose and her daughter Leah jumped out of their cars to look for Larry. He’d collapsed from an apparent heart attack.
“He hadn’t gone more than 10 steps,” Rose said. “He looked like he was lying down.”
They called 911. An ambulance was dispatched, but it was blocked by fire.
The two performed CPR on him for an hour attempting to revive him, but it didn’t work. Every minute they stayed put the Lehrbases in greater risk.
So they covered his 325-pound body with a 4-wheeler tarp and left him. Lehrbas is the only civilian whose death has been considered by officials as related to the massive wildfires burning in the state this summer.
Early on, Rose called their son, Lyle Lehrbas, who drove from Spokane. He had to persuade emergency officials who blocked the road to let him by. They told him he had 15 minutes to retrieve his mom and sister. He went via a back road.
The fire had nearly surrounded their farm, so the two women drove to a back gate. It was locked and they didn’t have a key. That’s where Lyle Lehrbas met them. He ripped down the fence and Rose and Leah started to drive their two Priuses around the gate, however, Rose’s gold Prius high-centered.
Unable to move her car, Rose grabbed her medicine and purse and jumped into her son’s Tundra pickup. The three escaped the fire, leaving Larry’s body.
The next day, the Lehrbases’ home burned, as did a vacant home nearby that they owned that Larry’s parents had built. The family also learned that someone shot up their abandoned car and stole money out of it. In one weekend the Lehrbases lost more than most ever will.
“I’m just going through the motions,” Rose said. “I haven’t taken time, I guess.”
On Monday, about 60 people gathered in the chapel of Fruitland Bible Camp, where Lehrbas was posthumously presented a flag by Boy Scout Troop 218 and the Washington Air National Guard on behalf of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The Bible camp doubles as the incident command post for the Carpenter Road fire, which is 18 percent contained.
Lehrbas was a veteran of the Korean War. Rose said he loved the flag and had just bought a new flag and flagpole although he hadn’t installed either yet.
Friends and family described Larry as jovial and outgoing.
“He never knew a stranger, and he loved to talk,” Rose said.
Despite everything they’ve lost, the Lehrbases are giving back to their community and trying to support those impacted by the fire. Leah Lehrbas also volunteered in the camp kitchen.
She also has continued her work distributing The Spokesman-Review to firefighters and community members.
“I think it would be unhealthy for me to sit around and cry all day, which would be easily done,” Leah said. “I can’t do that. I have to keep going each day and find a reason to get up.”
Her dedication impressed Richard Parrish, the assistant fire management officer for the Spokane Bureau of Land Management office. He met Leah while she cooked at the Bible camp. Her story touched him and he wanted to give back in some way. So, he reached out to McMorris Rodgers and organized the flag ceremony.
“She kept giving back to the community and supporting us,” he said of Leah.
The Lehrbases spent that first night in the Red Cross shelter in Hunters, Washington. Now they’re staying in their second home in Spokane.
“I’m just very blessed in that way,” Leah said. “Mom and I have another home. We didn’t lose everything. We just lost everything in that house.”
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