Lost woman tells of starting fire

Friday, July 12, 2002

PHOENIX -- The woman who set 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.

Valinda Elliott, 31, said she couldn't believe it when the signal fire she had started with her lighter became part of an 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, wiping tears from her face during her first extensive interview since she was rescued by the helicopter June 20.

"If they want me to apologize for saving my life then tell them I'm sorry," she said.

The blaze she started merged with the so-called Rodeo fire to create the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. The combined blaze 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 the Fort Apache Indian Reservation looking for work. He pleaded innocent to federal charges last week.

Elliott said she has been questioned by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Elliott has not been charged with a crime, which has prompted complaints that Gregg has been singled out by the authorities and the media. The FBI, BIA and the U.S. attorney's office would not discuss the investigation.

Describing her ordeal, Elliott said she and her employer, Ransford Olmsted, became lost on the remote reservation as the two tried to drive from Phoenix to Young to repair vending machines. They ran out of gas June 18.

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