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DA reaches decision on wildfire

CARBONDALE – Three months after a fire injured a man and threatened 150 homes in the midvalley, the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office said Tuesday it has reached a decision on whether to file charges.

Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cheney said “ethical prohibitions” prevented him from discussing the decision in advance. One of two things will happen: a felony charge will be filed against the party suspected to be responsible for the fire or a statement will be released detailing why a charge wasn’t appropriate, he said.

The decision will be announced within two weeks, Cheney said.

Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach said the fire is still on the minds of the people affected.

“I can tell you the community wants accountability and answers,” he said.

If a charge is pursued, it will most likely be fourth-degree arson, a felony.

The County Road 100 fire roared to life Tuesday, April 15, when high winds blew embers from a wood pile that had been burned the previous weekend on a ranch, according to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. The old fire was unattended at the time, the preliminary investigation concluded.

Wind gusts of 54 miles per hour fanned the flames to the east and northeast. Flames whipped across dry grass, brush and cottonwoods trees. Larry Garfinkel, a fisherman visiting from California, was overtaken by flames near Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision. He suffered a severe burn to his left hand and is still battling to regain full use. Firefighters said they “were seconds from losing homes.” Three structures suffered damage.

Leach said the fire call came from 1265 County Road 100, and evidence showed that is where the blaze originated. That is the address of the former Dennis Gerbaz Ranch, east of the Carbondale rodeo grounds. Dennis is deceased but the ranch is reportedly still in his family’s hands.

Leach said the fire was human caused and that no one at that address sought an open burning permit from the fire department.

Leach vowed after the fire that the community will have answers about the cause. He said Tuesday that he hoped answers would be provided by the law enforcement agencies. If not, the fire department will do its own investigation, not to press for prosecution but to bring closure for the community.

“I’m still awaiting word from the DA’s office on what the disposition of this case is going to be,” Leach said.

He said he wants to see accountability because of the “catastrophic, life-changing” injuries to Garfinkel and because of the “hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of property damage.”

“If nobody is held accountable I will hire an investigator and find out what happened out there,” Leach said. “The results of this reckless, open burning shouldn’t go unaccounted for or swept under the rug.”

Leach has been fire chief in Carbondale for 28 years. The community has changed and the rules on open burning must evolve as well, he said. There are few rules dictating burning on ranches and farms in Colorado, but as the state becomes suburbanized, conflicts often arise in once rural areas.

In a meeting with the Carbondale fire district’s board of directors shortly after the County Road 100 fire, Leach explained that the fire department could request and strongly suggest that people get permits for spring burns, but they weren’t required. There is no state law that identifies a procedure.

“It’s the closest thing you’ve got to the wild west in western Colorado,” Leach said at the time.

He stood behind that sentiment Tuesday.

“People have a right to feel safe in their homes,” Leach said. “People have a right to breath clean air.

“There’s more at stake here then going out and starting a fire whenever you want. What worked in 1960 doesn’t work anymore,” Leach said.

He stressed that spring burns are a legitimate tool that working cattle ranches need as part of their operation. He isn’t concerned about ranchers burning grass in irrigation ditches and isn’t advocating adding restrictions on them. The issue is burning wood piles, construction wood and other debris, he said. Stricter rules are needed in those cases, he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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