Experts set to square off in Carbondale-area arson trial
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – An arson trial starting later this month over the County Road 100 fire last year could hinge on which side can convince a jury to accept its theory about the origins of the blaze.
The Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the lawyer for Larry Gerbaz plan to call expert witnesses with dueling theories about where the wildland fire started. The fire raged out of control April 15, 2008, and injured one man and threatened scores of homes.
Gerbaz was charged with two counts of fourth degree arson after investigators concluded the fire started on his property about 2 miles east of Carbondale. He pleaded not guilty earlier this year. His trial is scheduled to begin July 31.
Documents filed in Garfield County District Court show that Gerbaz intends to argue that he responsibly handled the burning of wood the weekend before the wildland fire erupted.
“We cleaned a fire break around the pile before ignition and continued to clean up any fuel in the burn area,” Gerbaz told investigators on April 16, one day after the wildland fire. He said he and his helper “stayed on” the burning pile until 6 or 7 p.m. Saturday, April 12, then watched it the following day as well. They also hosed down a different wood pile to make sure it didn’t ignite.
By Monday, “the fire area was level and appeared to be out: no fuel, no flame, no smoke at that time,” Gerbaz told investigators in a written statement.
The next day a fire started in that vicinity. Winds built throughout that morning and reached 50 mph by mid-day, according to the Carbondale Fire Department. Embers ignited dry grass, cottonwood trees and brush. Houses in the low-density Roaring Fork Preserve and Mayfly Bend subdivisions, east of the Gerbaz property, were the first threatened. The flames continued to spread to the east and northeast, causing minor damage to a home along County Road 100, another in Aspen Equestrian Estates and a third in Ranch at Roaring Fork.
Hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate or were prohibited from returning to their homes that night. Firefighters from Carbondale and Basalt, with assistance from multiple other agencies, were credited with saving scores of structures.
The flames overtook fisherman Larry Garfinkel. He was fishing with friends near the Ranch at Roaring Fork that morning. The group became concerned when the smoke got thicker and closer, so they headed back for the subdivision. Garfinkel, who was slowed by a bum knee, said brush burst into flames beside him as he was running. He was saved by plunging into a creek. His two companions pulled him to safety. Garfinkel suffered burns to his left arm and head.
Gerbaz said he was out of town on the Tuesday the fire started, so he couldn’t be responsible. He said his wife called him the day of the fire and reported seeing flames southeast of their home.
Gerbaz’s attorney, Tom Silverman of Glenwood Springs, plans to call an expert witness on wildland fire investigations and origins to challenge the conclusions reached by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and Ninth Judicial District Attorney.
Court documents show the D.A.’s office is amassing its own expert witnesses to back the conclusions of investigators from the sheriff’s office. Deputies said the burn pattern indicated the fire originated on Gerbaz’s property. They suspected the high winds revived sparks from the wood pile. They dismissed his claim the fire started southeast of his land.
The D.A.’s office intends to use testimony at the trial from an expert on wildland fire investigation and origin, and another expert on trees and plants as sources of fuel for a fire. Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach will be the third expert witness called for testimony on determining origins of wildland fires and fighting fires.
Garfinkel is also listed as a potential witness. Gerbaz’s attorney has filed a motion to try to prevent the prosecution from referring to Garfinkel and three homeowners who suffered property damage as “victims” during the trial on grounds that the jury could place “special significance” on the phrase and use it against Gerbaz. Judge Daniel Petre hasn’t ruled on that motion.
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