Carbondale fire sparks changes |

Carbondale fire sparks changes

Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

CARBONDALE ” The Carbondale fire department will tighten rules on open burning this spring after a fire on ranch land got out of hand and threatened 150 homes and injured one man last year.

Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach said the department will establish a permit process that will make landowners aware of dangerous weather conditions and inform firefighters about open burning projects.

“In the past the process has been pretty easy and pretty loose,” Leach said. “We want to tighten it up.”

The old process was essentially voluntary. Ranchers and other landowners were “requested” to notify the fire department when they planned to burn grass in ditches, along fence lines and fields, which is common in the spring. No state law requires landowners to make the call to the fire department. However, the international fire code, which Garfield County adapted in 2005, requires a permit from fire officials for open burning.

Here’s the new process the Carbondale fire department will implement: Landowners will get an annual permit by either filling out an application at the fire station or online. Then, the landowner will be required to call the fire department on the day of each intended burn. Landowners will be told not to burn that day if weather conditions are expected to be adverse.

Leach said he is concerned about what firefighters call “red flag warning days.” Those occur when high winds are expected, the relative humidity is low and conditions are dry. Western Colorado is notified of red flag warnings by the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office.

The fire department’s website will include links to weather services so landowners can plan ahead.

“Weather is the biggest factor in a controlled burn getting out of control and spreading, in particular the wind,” Leach said.

The public will get a chance to comment on the new regulations at an open forum next month. The meeting will be from 3-5 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Carbondale Fire Station, 301 Meadowood Dr. Leach, Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario and possibly the county air-quality control officer will be on a panel to discuss issues. The moderator will be Pitkin County Manager Hilary Fletcher.

Although ranchers have reputations of being independent and stubborn, Leach doesn’t anticipate a problem for the department enforcing the new regulations.

“The public’s not stupid,” Leach said. “If the fire department gives them the right tools, they will make the prudent and safe decisions.”

The new regulations are a product of changing times. Many Carbondale-area ranches have been carved up the last couple of decades and developed as large-lot subdivisions. Pastures now abut multimillion-dollar homes. So, when an open burn in agricultural lands gets out of hand, the potential for damage is greater than before.

A controlled burn in a pasture 2 miles east of Carbondale sparked a wildfire last April 15. Authorities said the fire started at a Gerbaz family ranch on County Road 100. Larry Gerbaz told investigators he burned a woodpile in a pasture the weekend before the fire but took numerous precautions to control the burn, including building a fire break around the pile and dousing the embers once the flames died down, according to a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office report.

High winds stoked the fire a few days after Gerbaz thought it was out. Sparks ignited dry grass and vegetation and the wind-whipped flames threatened houses between County Road 100 and Highway 82, east of the Carbondale rodeo arena. Gerbaz is facing criminal charges and civil lawsuits.

“What we’re doing is the result of the County Road 100 fire,” Leach said. “That fire spooked me.

“My firefighters were in danger, property owners were in danger, animals were in danger. A significant amount of property was damaged and one man was severely injured. This was different from brushfires in the past.”

No one had notified the fire department about the open burning along County Road 100.

The victims of last year’s County Road 100 fire outside of Carbondale are seeking more than $1 million in damages from the man accused of accidentally starting the blaze, and the total is expected to grow.

Court documents show that some of the homeowners who were affected by the wildfire have claimed $1.15 million in alleged damages to their property. They filed a lawsuit in state court in December trying to recover damages from Larry Gerbaz, the man whom authorities claim accidentally started the wildfire, and his wife Molly.

“This figure is clearly well short of what will ultimately be claimed by the state court plaintiffs because it includes no figures on behalf of the plaintiff Ranch at Roaring Fork Homeowners Association Inc.,” said court documents filed recently by Larry Gerbaz’s attorneys.

In a separate lawsuit filed in Denver’s federal court, Larry Garfinkel is seeking damages from Larry Gerbaz and the 100 Road Cattle Co. LLC for burns he suffered in the wildfire. Garfinkel was fishing with friends near the Ranch at Roaring Fork when he was overcome by flames in the wind-whipped wildfire. He suffered extensive burns to his left hand. Garfinkel had submitted medical bills for nearly $85,000 as of mid-January, Gerbaz’s attorneys said in court documents. Garfinkel’s attorney hasn’t disclosed the total damages that will be sought.

Even if the property owners and Garfinkel successfully prove their cases against Gerbaz, there won’t be enough insurance money to cover the damages. Larry Gerbaz and the 100 Road Cattle Co. have been informed by their insurance carrier, National Farmers Union Property and Casualty Co., “that there is one million dollars in coverage which would apply to claims arising from the wildfire,” Gerbaz’s attorneys disclosed in a motion in the Garfinkel lawsuit.

Gerbaz wanted the two lawsuits combined to more effectively negotiate a settlement, according to the motion. He wanted the Garfinkel lawsuit dismissed so Garfinkel could join the property owners’ lawsuit. A federal judge denied that motion on Feb. 17.

Gerbaz also faces criminal charges for the fire. He pleaded not guilty to two charges of arson. A jury trial is scheduled in May.

” Scott Condon

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