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Ariz. Fire Starter Defends Actions

Wildfire: Valinda Elliott says she was lost in the wilderness, so she started a signal blaze. It became part of the inferno that burned 469,000 acres and destroyed 467 homes.

July 12, 2002|From Associated Press

PHOENIX — A woman reviled for setting one of Arizona's devastating wildfires said Thursday that she had been lost in the wilderness for two nights and was desperate to get the attention of a passing TV helicopter. "You can't blame me for saving my life," she said.

In her first extensive interview since she was rescued by the helicopter June 20, Valinda Elliott told Associated Press that she could not believe it when the signal fire she started with her lighter became part of the inferno that destroyed at least 467 homes and scorched nearly 469,000 acres before being contained.

"If there was some other way I could have gotten that helicopter's attention, I would have used it," she said.

The blaze she started, named the Chediski fire, merged with another to the east called the Rodeo fire, creating the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. The combined blazes burned through several communities last month and forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people.

Authorities said the Rodeo fire was started by Leonard Gregg, a part-time firefighter from Fort Apache Indian Reservation looking for work. He pleaded not guilty to federal charges last week.

Elliott said she has been questioned by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She has not been charged with a crime.

The FBI, BIA and the U.S. attorney's office would not discuss the investigation.

Some of those driven from their homes were furious at her when they learned how the fire began.

Elliott said she became stranded in the wilderness after she and her employer ran out of gas June 18 while driving through the remote reservation. The two slept that night in her employer's truck, with no sign of anyone around to help and no cell phone signal to call 911.

The next morning, she said, she became separated from her boss while trying to find a place where her cell phone would work, she said.

She said she lost her way back to the truck and spent the second night alone.

Elliott said she drank from muddy pools, had no food and began to worry that she would never be found.

She used a lighter to set fire to a small bush the next morning after she heard the helicopter, which rescued her, Elliott said.

Her employer was rescued separately, she said.

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