Gerbaz witness questions Carbondale fire’s cause, origin
August 20, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – An expert witness in fire investigations added fuel Wednesday to the theory that the County Road 100 wildfire near Carbondale started somewhere other than Larry Gerbaz’s property in April 2008.
Jeffrey Berino, a senior fire investigator with an Arvada firm, said he concluded the cause and origin of the wildfire couldn’t be determined because of a wide variety of factors. Berino, who was hired by Gerbaz’s defense team, said he found evidence of “several” heels or possible places of origin for the fire when he investigated the scene last summer. “None of them are near Mr. Gerbaz’s [wood] pile,” he said.
Gerbaz acknowledges he burned a wood pile at 1265 County Road 100 on Saturday, April 12. He claims he took precautions to make sure the fire didn’t spread and made sure it was out before he left it unattended.
An investigation by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office concluded heavy winds on Tuesday, April 15, revived embers from the Gerbaz burn pile and started the wildfire. Gerbaz is facing one felony and one misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree arson. Deputy District Attorney Ed Veronda called more than one dozen witnesses last week to build a case. The defense team headed by attorney Tom Silverman is counterpunching this week.
Berino said his investigation showed there were several fires on and immediately before April 15 in the neighborhood surrounding the Gerbaz ranch. He said two possible points of origin were west-northwest of the Gerbaz property. He showed the jury pictures taken on April 15 which showed plumes of smoke rising to the north of the Gerbaz property.
In addition, he noted that a resident immediately west of the Gerbaz property, Renae Taylor, burned a wood pile on Sunday, April 13, and that Taylor told him and another investigator that embers were flying from west to east across her property in the high winds of April 15. He suggested embers revived from Taylor’s fire, or a fire to the west, might have ignited the wildfire.
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Berino also testified that he found burn patterns that showed the fire was moving east to west from The Preserve, a large-lot subdivision east of Gerbaz’s property. He backed his claim by showing photographs to the jury that showed burn marks on the east side of young, standing trees; a downed log; and a stump all east of Gerbaz’s property. That contradicts the prosecution’s evidence that high winds pushed the fire from west to east.
“I saw burn patterns from all directions,” he said.
Berino contended that Gerbaz’s wood pile was burned so thoroughly on the weekend that it couldn’t provide fuel for the wildfire on Tuesday. “The Gerbaz fire was burned down to bare earth,” he said.
Berino said he believes there are several potential causes of the wildfire – including intentional arson on the part of unknown parties. A prosecution witness said two men walked onto the Gerbaz property from County Road 100 and checked out a burning wood pile on April 15. Berino believes that lead should have been investigated by the sheriff’s office. Arsonists, he said, sometimes return to a site to check their work.
He pegged other controlled burns as the possible cause of the wildfire. There were “three or four” controlled burns in ditches and pastures both north and south of the Gerbaz property on April 15, he said.
Berino also acknowledged the fire might have started on Gerbaz’s property, but through no fault of the suspect. A Bobcat used to stack wood on the ranch might have spewed residual fuel on grasses. The fuel could have ignited at a later time under the right conditions, Berino said.
Berino was Silverman’s key witness in an effort to raise questions in the minds of jury members about the cause and origin of the fire. Veronda didn’t have a chance to cross-examine Berino Wednesday. The testimony will likely conclude Thursday and the case could go to the jury.