Witness says Carbondale wildfire nearly killed him
August 18, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Larry Garfinkel testified Monday in Garfield County Court that he was certain he was going to die when flames from the County Road 100 fire in April 2008 overtook him.
Garfinkel, 62, from Thousand Oaks, Calif., was fishing with two buddies on Sopris Creek near the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision, outside of Carbonale, when heavy winds and a “ball of smoke” made them nervous. They headed back toward the subdivision but the fast-moving flames caught them.
“The cottonwoods on the north side of the Roaring Fork [River] just blew up, erupted,” Garfinkel testified in the trial of Larry Gerbaz, 61, who is facing two charges of fourth-degree arson. “In the time it took us to go the next 100 yards, that fire moved half a mile. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
There wasn’t a wall of fire. Instead trees and brush exploded from the super-heated air and embers blew in the high winds, Garfinkel said. The fire flanked him and his companions on one side, but they adjusted their path and still felt they could walk to safety. Garfinkel, who was hobbled by a knee that had been replaced, fell a few paces behind his companions. He said the super-heated air or fire caught him from behind and melted the back of his fishing vest and singed his head. Garfinkel grabbed a willow bush as he reached the creek and swung around to face the fire.
“It was right there,” he said. “I screamed, ‘I’m just going to burn to death. That’s it. I’m going to burn to death.'”
The bush exploded with Garfinkel’s left hand on it. He said he watched his hand turn as white as a Styrofoam cup that was available to him in the witness box. “The next instant, I either fell or jumped into the creek,” he said.
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Garfinkel stayed submerged on his back as the fire roared over. He came up once for air then went back down. The next thing he remembers was one of his companions tugging at his right arm and screaming for him to get up and get moving because the fire was coming back.
“I told him, ‘Go save yourself. I can’t make it,'” Garfinkel said while choking back tears. He needed about a minute to compose himself and continue.
His friend, Chuck Hyatt, was “tenacious” and continued pulling him to safety. Garfinkel’s other friend soon helped in the effort to lead him from harm’s way. They finally clawed their way up a steep embankment and over concrete barriers along Highway 82 west of the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision. As they were making their way up, Garfinkel said he could “see the flesh coming off my hand. It’s just falling off.”
He is being treated at a renowned burn center in California and said he fears he may never recover enough use of his left hand to participate in some of his favorite activities, like fly fishing.
Garfinkel was the last witness for the prosecution in the trial of Gerbaz. Garfinkel’s testimony was used by Deputy District Attorney Ed Veronda to show a person suffered injuries in the fire, an element necessary for a felony charge of fourth-degree arson. Gerbaz is also facing a misdemeanor charge of arson for damage to property.
Authorities suspect that a controlled burn on property that Gerbaz maintains at 1265 County Road 100 was the origin of the fire. Gerbaz burned a wood pile on the property the Saturday before the wildfire broke out on a Tuesday. Veronda called more than a dozen witnesses to the stand in an effort to try to convince the jury that the fire started at Gerbaz’s land.
Gerbaz contends that he watched his fire carefully, took precautions against it spreading and doused the ashes when the wood burned down. His defense attorneys, Tom Silverman and Joe Kirwan, attempted to show throughout cross examination of those witnesses that there were other fires in the area on the day of and the days immediately preceding Tuesday, April 15.
Gerbaz’s team began its case late Monday by calling two witnesses who reported seeing fires in the area east of Carbondale. Dr. Claudia Nelson testified that she saw a person setting a controlled burn near the Ranch at Roaring Fork the morning of April 15.
Tom Satkunas, a dump truck driver, said he noted during several trips to a nearby gravel pit that morning that there were numerous controlled burns in the area between Highway 82 and County Road 100, west of Catherine Store. The sight registered with him because he was aware that there was a high-wind warning for that day.
“I thought, ‘My God, those idiots are burning ditches,'” Satkunas said.
The trial is expected to continue through this week.