Brother - Fire always fascinated man charged with arson

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

CIBECUE, Ariz. -- The man charged with starting one of the blazes that has blackened a huge swath of Arizona forest and destroyed hundreds of homes was fascinated with flame when he was a boy and sometimes set fires, a foster brother said.

Federal prosectors have accused Leonard Gregg, 29, of starting the blaze in dry grass because he wanted to earn money as part of a fire crew.

Wilson Gregg, the suspect's brother by adoption, recalled how he was intrigued by fire as a child and occasionally set dangerous ones -- including a backyard bonfire that almost swept out of control.

"Whenever my mother would cook, he would watch the flames," Wilson Gregg told The Arizona Republic for its Monday editions. "It fascinated him."

Gregg also told the newspaper that his foster brother found it difficult to support his girlfriend and her six children.

"He only had one job left, and that was firefighting," Wilson Gregg said.

Authorities said Gregg made $8 per hour fighting fires.

Other residents of the White Mountain Apache reservation were reluctant to talk about Leonard Gregg or his family. Some said they were concerned about what the family would think if they talked about him, and several neighbors turned a reporter away without talking.

Blow to economy

Some said they were angered that one of their own was accused in the fire, which destroyed a large swatch of the ponderosa pines that are a major part of the White Mountain Apaches' economy.

"That was our money back there, that timber," said Travis Duryea, one of Gregg's neighbors. "He's put a lot of us out."

If convicted of both counts of willfully setting fire to timber or underbrush, Gregg could face 10 years in prison and be fined $500,000. A preliminary hearing was set for today.

Gregg is the second person employed to fight wildfires who is accused of setting blazes during one of the country's most destructive fire seasons. In Colorado, Terry Barton, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, was charged in June with setting the fire about 40 miles southwest of Denver that has burned about 137,760 acres.

Meanwhile on Monday, firefighters fanned out from the fire lines south of Forest Lakes, the community most threatened by the 463,000-acre blaze, to remove potential fuel or reinforce firebreaks. The blaze was about 45 percent contained.

"We believe we've really turned the corner on this thing," said fire information officer Tim Buxton.

Timetable to return

Fire officials also planned to meet with local officials to discuss a timetable for allowing 3,500 to 4,000 evacuees to return to their homes, fire spokesman Art Wirtz said. About 25,000 people already had been allowed to return to Show Low and some nearby towns during the weekend.

Buxton said it would be at least a few more days before the remaining evacuees were allowed to return.

Major fires active Monday in eight Western states had charred nearly 1 million acres, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

Officials in South Dakota's Black Hills said that some Deadwood residents driven out by a wildfire could be allowed to return to the historic Wild West town as early as today. A fire that started Saturday had forced the evacuation of 10,000 to 15,000 residents and tourists.

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