Rancher faces charges for wildfire
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Two counts of fourth-degree arson were filed Wednesday against a longtime Carbondale rancher allegedly responsible for the April 15 wildfire that burned a man and threatened 150 homes in the midvalley.
Larry Del Gerbaz, 60, was charged with fourth-degree arson ” person in danger, and fourth-degree arson ” property in danger, in Garfield County District Court. The first charge is a fourth-degree felony while the property-related charge is a misdemeanor.
The felony charge claims Gerbaz “unlawfully, feloniously, knowingly or recklessly started or maintained a fire.”
Gerbaz wasn’t arrested. Instead he was given a summons to appear in court because the counts are a lower-level felony and misdemeanor. He appeared with family members Wednesday but wasn’t required to enter a plea. Gerbaz hired Glenwood Springs attorney Thomas Silverman to represent him. His next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 11.
Documents filed by the district attorney’s office in Glenwood Springs said the fire originated at 1265 County Road 100, a ranch owned by Dennis Gerbaz, a relative of Larry’s who is deceased.
Gerbaz acknowledged to investigators with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office that he started three wood piles on fire in a pasture on the ranch the weekend before the Tuesday wildfire. However, he disputed allegations that his burn was the source of the wildfire.
Gerbaz told investigators that he “made every attempt to extinguish the burn, insisting that there was nothing left of the burn when he left town.” He burned the wood piles on a Saturday. Gerbaz said he left for Denver on Sunday and had a friend check on the status of the wood piles.
Gerbaz also offered an alternative theory about the origination of the fire. He and his wife, Molly, “thought two other people were burning in the area at the time of the fire,” according to court documents. Detective Megan Alstatt discounted Gerbaz’s theory that the wildfire started elsewhere and burned toward his property.
“Larry’s statements, which seemed to say that he believed the fire moved toward his residence, were not consistent with the burn pattern of the wind direction that day,” Alstatt said in a document known as a sworn statement of facts. That document outlines the district attorney’s reasons for charging Gerbaz.
Three witnesses said they saw smoke and flames from Gerbaz’s pasture immediately before the fire spread.
The sheriff’s office said at the time of the fire that investigators believed strong winds reignited the ashes at the wood piles and spread sparks. High winds started blowing by mid-morning and built in excess of 50 mph through midday.
The embers ignited dry grass, brush and cottonwood trees in the Roaring Fork Preserve and Mayfly Bend subdivisions, large-lot areas adjacent to the Gerbaz ranch to the east. The fire continued to spread to the east and northeast, causing minor damage to a home along County Road 100, one in the Aspen Equestrian Estates and at Ranch at Roaring Fork. Hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate or were prohibited from returning home that night. Firefighters from Carbondale and Basalt were credited with saving structures and lives.
Larry Garfinkel of Thousand Oaks, Calif., was visiting the Roaring Fork Valley on a fishing outing with friends. Garfinkel and two friends decided to leave the area of the Roaring Fork River and a stream by Ranch at Roaring Fork as the smoke and flames slowly advanced toward them. Garfinkel was overcome by the wind-whipped flames and said he survived only by plunging into a shallow creek. He suffered burns to his head and severe burns to his left arm. Garfinkel said he thought he was going to die. He was pulled to safety by a friend after the initial wall of flames blew over him.
Gerbaz is facing the felony charge because of the injuries to Garfinkel, who is rehabilitating back in California. Other than his injuries, scores of charred tree trunks are the only sign of the fire remaining.
The formal filing of charges Wednesday ends 3 1/2 months of uncertainty for the people most directly affected by the fire. Silbi Stainton, who lives with her family in Mayfly Bend subdivision, said no one in her neighborhood will be surprised that Gerbaz was charged. It was clear to them where the fire originated.
“While nobody likes to see their neighbor charged with a crime, given the life altering injuries sustained by Mr. Larry Garfinkel and the reckless endangerment imposed on the lives of a great many other fine neighbors and firefighters that day, I respect what the DA had to do,” Stainton said. She fled her house the day of the fire with her two young children as flames she estimated at 30 feet high surrounded her house. She credited firefighters with saving her house.
Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach said he was “heartened” that the district attorney’s office is “taking this seriously.”
“My biggest fear from day one was that this would get brushed aside and nothing would happen,” he said.
Leach and Stainton said they hoped the filing of charges in this case would make people take special care with burns in the future. Open burning in western Colorado is “relatively unregulated,” Leach said. In an earlier interview, he called open burning a last vestige of the Wild West.
People are encouraged but not legally required to get burn permits from a local fire department. Leach said no permits were issued at 1265 County Road 100.
“The big lesson learned is call the fire department for a burn permit before doing open burning,” Leach said.
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