Wildfire starter gets hotshot lawyer

Man who lit Caribou Hills blaze has first day in court

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2007

Soldotna attorney Chuck Robinson entered a formal appearance as legal counsel in Kenai District Court on Friday for the California man charged in the Caribou Hills wildfire that blackened more than 55,000 acres a month ago and destroyed at least 53 cabins.

Judge Sharon Illsley scheduled a jury trial to begin during the week of Sept. 24, in the misdemeanor case of Charles Partridge Jr., 60, who was arraigned on one count of uncontrolled spread of fire.

Partridge was cited by the Alaska Division of Forestry on June 26 after sparks from a grinder he was using to sharpen a shovel June 19 ignited grass and the fire spread off the property where he was working, according to the charging document.

A former Soldotna resident, Partridge said he was helping build a cabin for his son in the Caribou Hills area east of Ninilchik.

High winds and low humidity fanned the blaze, at one time making it the number-one firefighting priority in the nation. It eventually burned at least 53 cabins and residences, 79 outbuildings and 55,648 acres of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area.

Firefighters worked more than two weeks to contain the fire and were demobilized July 6, when officials placed the fire in monitor status "to achieve resource benefits that are desirable and beneficial to the management" of the wilderness area, according to a forestry news release.

On Friday morning, Partridge sat in the Kenai courtroom along with about 10 others charged with unrelated misdemeanors, and listened to a videotape presentation of their legal rights.

After the tape was played, assistant district attorney Will Walton informed the court that Partridge was the only defendant represented by counsel and asked that his arraignment be considered first.

Robinson asked Illsley if the court had been in receipt of Partridge's "not guilty" plea and his request for a jury trial.

Illsley said she had and, with concurrence of the two lawyers, scheduled trial call and the jury trial for September.

Following the arraignment hearing, Partridge, who is retired, said he has not yet decided whether he will remain in Alaska until then or go back to his home in California and return in September.

Earlier this year, Robinson successfully defended Shawn Rogers who had been charged with murder in the 2004 shooting death of Brian Black in a Beluga tavern. Rogers is appealing a conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

In another high-profile Kenai court case, Robinson won acquittal for Erwin "Jamie" Petterson Jr., who had been charged with second-degree murder for allegedly watching an in-dash DVD as his pickup truck crossed the center line of the Seward Highway and collided head on with Robert and Donna Weiser's vehicle, killing them.

As in the Petterson case, Robinson's comment about the Partridge matter on Friday was, "Accidents happen."

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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