Angler: ‘I was going to burn to death’ in Carbondale |

Angler: ‘I was going to burn to death’ in Carbondale

Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

CARBONDALE , Colorado” Long after the scorched grass turns green, the charred cottonwood trees are replaced and the damaged roofs are patched, Larry Garfinkel will still bear the scars of the County Road 100 wildfire.

Garfinkel, 61, a retired detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, was on an annual golfing and fishing trip with buddies last week when the outing turned into a nightmare that almost took his life. He was the only person injured in a wildfire that threatened an estimated 300 homes and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.

Garfinkel and three others were fly fishing in the Roaring Fork River and Sopris Creek at the edge of the Ranch at Roaring Fork subdivision, where they were staying in a friend’s condominium.

They hit the water at 9:30 a.m. They weren’t alarm when they saw smoke in the distance. “We’ve seen controlled burns before,” Garfinkel said from his room at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs Wednesday. “The smoke appeared to be a couple of miles away ” not even a concern.”

One of their group drifted off to fish on his own. Garfinkel and his two colleagues, Tom Greenup and Chuck Hyatt, enjoyed the morning but bean to worry about the fire after a lunch break.

“In the one-half hour it took us to eat, that fire really began to cook,” he said.

They decided it was time to return to their car, parked roughly one-half mile away on a street at the west edge of Ranch at Roaring Fork. The men had walked about 10 minutes and were within 300 yards of a cul de sac when the strong, swirling winds whipped the flames around them.

“It just began to crescendo. It was just like an unstoppable locomotive,” Garfinkel said. “It’s roaring ” you can hear that sound, you can feel the temperature go through the roof. And we began to run.”

The men were trapped. A wall of fire in front blocked them from their car. Another behind prevented escape down river. They veered north, toward Highway 82.

Garfinkel couldn’t run as fast as his colleagues because of a knee replacement.

“I told Chuck and Tom to save themselves,” Garfinkel said. “I couldn’t keep up.”

As the fire crackled in the brush around him and the wind blew thick clouds of smoke and embers his way, a willow bush at the edge of the creek “exploded” in flame just as Garfinkel grabbed it with his left hand.

“I told myself at the time the bush exploded I was going to burn to death,” Garfinkel said.

Somehow ” Garfinkel said he honestly doesn’t know if it was acting on instinct or courage under fire ” he made his way into the shallow water of the creek, then into water deep enough to submerge him.

He said he looked up through about 4 inches of water and saw the flames flying past.

“The fire just keeps coming,” he said. “I came up for air once and then went back down.”

The fire eventually died away. It seemed like an eternity but Garfinkel estimated it was probably only one minute. He was able to sit up, but his waiting boots were filled with water. He was unable to stand.

Hyatt, 76, came back and helped Garfinkel to his feet, warning they still weren’t out of danger because the wind was making the fire unpredictable. Garfinkel could barely move and he was going into shock.

“Chuck said, ‘You’ve got to get up because I’m not letting you die,'” Garfinkel said, pausing as the memory brought him close to tears.

Hyatt started dragging Garfinkel out of the creek and was joined by Greenup. The men faced a sizable embankment when they approached the highway. They climbed a retaining wall made of offset blocks.

“That was like a ladder from heaven,” said Garfinkel. “Without it, all three of us would be dead.”

Garfinkel said he knew his left hand was badly damaged, but he felt no pain at the time. He climbed with his partners’ assistance, and they flipped him over the concrete barrier on Highway 82, just west of Ranch at Roaring Fork.

Garfinkel was treated in Valley View Medical Center’s intensive care unit until Sunday for third-degree burns on his left hand, burns on the back of his head, smoke-filled lungs and extensive swelling.

He was released from the hospital yesterday, eight days after the fire. Doctors say he faces “months” of treatment and physical therapy.

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