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A Hard Life but Good Job, Then Arrest

The Nation

Crime: Man accused of setting Arizona blaze got chance to succeed, gain respect as a firefighter.

July 02, 2002|ERIC SLATER and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CIBECUE, Ariz. -- Leonard Gregg, the man accused of setting the devastating Rodeo fire, was hardly living an easy life here. This being the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, however, he was making out about as well as most.

Gregg is poor and, much of the time, was jobless, like the majority of men here. He doesn't drink much, but members of his family have alcohol problems, he told investigators, as do most adults on the reservation.

His education stopped at the ninth grade. He lived with his girlfriend and her six children and struggled with little success to support them.

But each summer, Gregg, like about 7,000 Native American men across the country, had the chance to earn not just a half-decent wage but the respect of the community. He became a firefighter, a perennial hero in yellow and green flame-resistant Nomex.

A contract firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Gregg would don his helmet and goggles and, for $8 an hour, become a revered protector of his reservation, home to 13,000 tribe members.

"There is a long tradition here of firefighters, and everyone is very proud of them," said Ben Nuvamsa, the BIA supervisor at the Fort Apache agency. "Our teams are recognized nationally for their efforts. They are local heroes. They march in the tribal parades and everyone cheers."

On June 18, with fires raging in Colorado--and firefighters there making the hourly wage plus considerable overtime--the part-time hero Gregg allegedly sparked two fires north of here.

The first burned only an acre before crews put it out. The second ran up the canyons, spread through the pine forests and merged with another fire farther west, growing into the largest conflagration in state history.

By Monday, the now-dying Rodeo-Chediski fire had scorched 463,000 acres, consumed 437 homes and cost the reservation at least $250 million in timber sales alone.

Gregg, a soft-spoken 29-year-old with a fondness for cowboy hats and horses, allegedly left boot prints at the scene and told a neighbor that he was expecting a fire call even before the blaze had been reported. When authorities took him into custody Saturday night, he told investigators that he set the fire in the hope of being called to duty, according to court papers. He also told them he did it in a rage, furious over the drunken behavior of some close relatives.

His hometown of Cibecue, where he started the fires, sits at the tip of a dead-end roadway in the southwest corner of the reservation. Many of the community's 2,000 residents speak only broken English, preferring Apache.

Gregg, who is now in jail in Flagstaff awaiting trial, lived in a small brown stucco house here, a partially prefabricated home that looks like countless others on the 1.6-million-acre reservation.

He was adopted when he was 4, said an aunt, Ruthena Henry, and was close to his adoptive parents but had little to do with his birth parents. He grew up camping with his adoptive father and later hiked and rode horses in the forest.

Gregg and his girlfriend and her children lived, like most here, primarily on government aid, neighbors said. He worked as a hired hand at a nearby ranch a few times, but summertime firefighting was the best job he ever had.

With an unemployment rate of 62% and the median household income $18,903, compared with $40,558 for the rest of Arizona, Fort Apache is nevertheless among the more prosperous and economically stable reservations in the country. Compared with most of the United States, however, Fort Apache is neither.

And with little good news and few role models, the White Mountain Apaches and many other tribes have embraced their firefighters.

"These fire crews are a respected part of a tribal community," said Craig Wilcox, forest manager on the San Carlos reservation in central Arizona.

The jobs are highly sought after. There are 600 firefighters at San Carlos and 1,000 on the Fort Apache reservation, each of whom could earn $15,000 to $20,000 this summer.

"It's a good job," Wilcox said, "and a respected one."

The modern tradition of wild-land firefighting among Native Americans began after World War II, when a shortage of federal fire crews led to recruitment on reservations.

In 1948, the Mescalero Apaches of New Mexico began the Southwest Forest Firefighter program.

Over the next few years, the "Red Hats" became known as one of the best fire crews in the country and were often singled out for praise, according to the Journal of Arizona History.

After one fire, Trinity National Forest ranger Ralph W. White wrote a report to the Mescalero crew chief. "Your crews were far and above any other crews on the fire," he said more than half a century ago. "Their discipline, fire camp manners, and general behavior made them an outstanding group not even considering their firefighting efforts."

At Fort Apache, signs proclaim the reservation "Home of the Apache Hotshots."

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