Arson trial under way in Carbondale wildfire

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A 12-person jury is being asked to decide whether a rancher is responsible for starting a wildfire that burned a fisherman and homes in the Carbondale area last year.

Attorneys made opening arguments Tuesday in the criminal trial of Larry Gerbaz. They said the unusual case hinges on the question of whether the fire burned because of what Gerbaz did or some other cause.

Gerbaz faces felony and misdemeanor arson charges in connection with the April 15, 2008, wildfire. Several homes were damaged and many more were threatened. Larry Garfinkel, a   retired Los Angeles police detective, was seriously burned

Gerbaz had burned a debris pile on his uncle’s property three days earlier. Prosecutors say high winds kicked up the remnants of the fire and caused it to spread after Gerbaz had gone to Denver.

“He didn’t forget to turn out the lights. He forgot to put his fire out,” prosecutor Ed Veronda told the jury Tuesday.

Veronda said several neighbors will testify they saw the fire originate on the burning debris pile, and some of them were forced to flee for their lives.

Garfinkel suffered hand and arm burns when nearby brush caught fire. He saved himself by jumping into a creek.

Defense attorney Tom Silverman told the jury Gerbaz took numerous precautions to manage and put out his fire, and the wildfire occurred during spring burning season, when many landowners in the area had obtained permits and were doing burning.

“No one knows what the point of origin was, and no one knows who was responsible, and it would be completely inappropriate to try to make Larry Gerbaz the scapegoat,” Silverman said.

He said the wind was blowing in every direction the day of the wildfire, making it impossible to trace the cause of the fire and raising the possibility that embers were blown a long distance to start the wildfire.

Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach testified that although winds may have been swirling, they came predominantly from one direction. He said several other landowners’ fires in the area were too far away to have been the wildfire’s source.

The trial is scheduled to last two weeks. Two full days were required just to seat a jury, partly because of the high amount of local media coverage the case has received.

Gerbaz also faces civil legal action over the fire.


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