From wire reports
The biggest fire in Arizona history, which has scorched nearly a half-million acres over the past few days, was partly started by an out-of-work federal government firefighter, state and federal officials alleged Sunday.
Leonard Gregg, 29, a contract firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was charged with starting the Rodeo fire in the hope he would be hired to put it out, officials said. Two weeks ago, another federal government firefighter was charged with starting a massive Colorado wildfire.
"This fire was started with a profit motive behind it," said U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton. At a news conference following Gregg's initial court appearance in Flagstaff, Charlton said Gregg "started the fire so as to earn money as a contract firefighter."
If convicted of both counts of arson, Gregg could be sentenced to five years in prison, fined $250,000 and ordered to pay restitution of damages.
"I'm sorry for what I did," Gregg said during the hearing.
But U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp cut him off, saying he shouldn't make any admission of guilt at the hearing.
Gregg's arrest shocked thousands of state and federal firefighters battling blazes across the parched West, coming so soon after prosecutors in Colorado charged U.S. Forest Service firefighter Terry Barton with starting the Hayman fire, which has burned 137,000 acres.
First fire put out
Officials in Arizona said Sunday that on June 18, Gregg started two fires. In their criminal complaint, officials said one of the fires was put out easily, but the Rodeo fire, which Gregg was among the first to be hired to fight, grew into a massive blaze. One week ago, it merged with the Chedeski fire, which was started by a lost hiker signaling for help. The combined fires threw flames hundreds of feet into the air and forced the evacuation of more than 32,000 people.
Gregg allegedly set fire to dry grass near Cibeque, according to the complaint. He indicated to a woman he knew about the fire before it was first reported. Under questioning, he told officials he had finished the ninth grade and was not married.
The blazes, still raging, have so far scorched 450,000 acres, said Richard Wisehart, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Some 423 structures have been burned down, said Wisehart, and fire containment activity has cost some $22 million. Although about 4,500 fire personnel have been pressed into action against the blaze, only 35 percent of it has been contained.
The fire is the fourth largest in U.S. history, according to the Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the community that was severely affected. Government officials Sunday could not confirm that estimate.
Firefighters over the weekend fought to hold their defenses to the west of the Rodeo-Chedeski fire, said Jim Anderson, a fire information officer in Show Low. Sunday morning, the blaze threatened to leap over a fireline -- a section of ground firefighters had cleared of fuel.
"The flames were several hundred feet high and they were burning gases and smoke up to 2,000 feet in the air," Anderson said in a telephone interview. "What basically saved it was we were able to do a burnout operation."
Helicopters flew over the area between the fireline and the advancing blaze and dropped balls laced with potassium permanganate and ethylene glycol, he said. After a couple of minutes, a reaction between the chemicals set the balls on fire, and they burned away the fuel between the fireline and the Rodeo-Chedeski blaze, preventing the wildfire from sweeping west.
Gregg is one of about 1,000 contract firefighters who live on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and rely on the part-time jobs for their only income.