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Arizona Firefighter Held in Setting Blaze

Crime: Authorities say the contract employee wanted to make sure he had work this summer. More than 450,000 acres have burned so far.

July 01, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CIBECUE, Ariz. — Driven by the hope of good summertime work, a contract firefighter started what would turn into the worst wildfire in Arizona history, authorities alleged Sunday.

Leonard Gregg, 29, a part-time firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was one of the first summoned to combat the blaze.

"This fire was started with a profit motive behind it," U.S. Atty. Paul Charlton said.

Gregg was arrested Saturday night and appeared in federal court Sunday morning in Flagstaff, Ariz., looking tired and bewildered.

At one point during the brief hearing, he said: "I'm sorry for what I did."

U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp swiftly interrupted, telling Gregg that this was not the time to admit guilt.

Gregg is accused of starting two fires June 18, one of which was quickly snuffed out. The other rushed up the steep mountains north of here, driven by high winds and feeding on bone-dry scrub brush and ponderosa pines.

The so-called Rodeo blaze spread north, causing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the towns of Show Low, Pinedale, Linden and other communities.

Last week, the fire allegedly started by Gregg merged with another, the Chediski fire, which authorities believe was started by a lost hiker as she signaled a helicopter. By Sunday, the fire had consumed more than 452,000 acres and about 440 homes.

Residents of Show Low, Pinedale and parts of Linden began returning Saturday just hours before Gregg was arrested. Show Low was largely untouched, but parts of Pinedale and Linden were all but burned to the ground.

Jim Paxon--a U.S. Forest Service spokesman whose calm, folksy manner has soothed thousands of anxious evacuees--called word of the arrest "gut-wrenching."

"It causes a lot of angst and heartburn and questioning," Paxon said. "Too bad for everyone.... There is going to be some watershed damage that will last 100 years, not just a year or two."

Gregg--a native of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, where the fire started--said he put matches to dry grass to start the blaze, according to a complaint filed in federal court. The document also alleged that before anyone had reported the fire, Gregg told a woman that he had to rush home because there was going to be a fire call.

Held in the Coconino County Jail in Flagstaff, Gregg faces 10 years in prison, a $500,000 fine, and the possibility of having to pay restitution. He never expected the blaze to grow so large, according to the complaint, and "just wanted to work on a fire crew."

Because more firefighters are needed during the warm summer and fall months, federal and state agencies frequently contract some of the work to private companies. In Arizona, contract firefighters such as Gregg must pass a safety and training course, earning what's called a "red card," to be allowed on the fire line.

Gregg is the second government employee to be charged with intentionally setting a forest fire this season.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service fired Terry Barton, who was charged in Colorado with sparking the Hayman fire, which has burned 137,000 acres and 133 homes since June 8. Fire officials in Colorado announced Sunday that the fire was finally contained.

Although Show Low, Heber-Overgaard--which lost more than 200 homes--and other towns have received most of the media attention since the massive Arizona wildfire started, more than 60% of the burned acreage lies on reservation land. And the reservation was desperately impoverished before the blaze.

More than half of White Mountain Apache tribal households fall below the poverty line. Unemployment on the reservation stands at 60%.

The fire has ravaged the tribe's small but lucrative timber industry, closed its casino for two weeks now and probably killed thousands of elk. A tag to shoot a bull elk on the reservation costs $20,000.

Some here were devastated to learn that a Native American firefighter had been charged with intentionally setting the blaze.

"This is the last thing we needed," a woman named Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, said Sunday.

Dallas Massey, chairman of the tribe, said: "It doesn't matter if he's a tribal member or nonmember. We found who he was" and arrested him.

More than 4,500 firefighters continued to battle the blaze Sunday, mostly on its west and south flanks.

They benefited from slightly lower temperatures and milder winds, and continued to fortify the fire line around the Forest Lakes neighborhood near the town of Payson.

Two days ago, 600 homes were threatened there as the fire began roaring up nearby canyons. But after a series of successful nighttime back-burns and then Sunday's favorable weather, officials were optimistic that the community would hold.

On the northwest perimeter of the fire, residents of Heber-Overgaard continued to be kept from their houses Sunday. Along with residents of Linden and other communities, about 4,000 people still haven't been allowed to return home.

More than 25,000 others, however, began trekking back to their towns Saturday. And Sunday, fire officials expressed cautious optimism that the devastating and fast-moving inferno might finally be slowing to a halt.

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