Firefighter admits to setting fire in Arizona

Firefighter takes heat for setting Ariz. blaze Firefighter takes heat for setting wildfires


Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
SHOW LOW, Ariz. - A part-time firefighter looking for work was charged Sunday with using matches to set dry grass aflame, starting a blaze that turned into the worst wildfire in Arizona history.
Leonard Gregg, 29, worked under contract as a firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was one of the first people called to fight the blaze. Gregg admitted setting the fire so he could get work on a fire crew, according to a statement filed in federal court by a BIA investigator.
"This fire was started with a profit motive behind it," U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said Sunday.
Gregg is the second person employed to fend off wildfires who is accused of setting the blazes during one of the country's most destructive fire seasons. Terry Barton, a U.S. Forest Service employee, was charged earlier in June with setting Colorado's largest-ever wildfire.
At a hearing in Flagstaff federal court on Sunday, a tired-looking Gregg said, "I'm sorry for what I did."
But U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp cut him off, saying he shouldn't make any admission of guilt at the hearing.
Gregg was arrested Saturday in connection with two fires set June 18 near the Fort Apache Indian Reservation town of Cibecue. One fire was put out, but the other exploded up steep terrain and quickly spread, threatening the town of Show Low and overrunning two smaller communities just to the west.
The wildfire merged with another, started by a lost hiker signaling a helicopter, and became the largest in Arizona history.
By Sunday, the 452,000-acre combined blaze had destroyed at least 423 homes. It was about 35 percent contained by fire lines near Show Low but continued to burn out of control to the west.
According to the criminal complaint, Gregg said he had set the fires near Cibecue by using matches to set dry grass aflame. Before the fire was reported, he told a woman he had to get home because there was going to be a fire call, the complaint said.
Gregg didn't expect the fire to get so big, the complaint said.
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.
Jim Paxon, a fire spokesman, called Sunday's revelation "gut-wrenching."
"It causes a lot of angst and heartburn and questioning," Paxon said.
Residents were horrified by the news that a neighbor was accused of setting a fire that caused so much destruction.
"It's really sorry that somebody would do this to so many people," said Helen Gonzalez, a discount store manager in Show Low. "There's so many people here without food and water, with nothing."
The judge said an attorney would be appointed for Gregg and set a preliminary hearing for Wednesday. Gregg, a resident of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, is being held in the Coconino County Jail.
Firefighters continued to fight the blaze Sunday and were focused on keeping the flames from bursting out of steep canyons and into the 600 homes of Forest Lakes, about 40 miles west of Show Low. The fire merged with another blaze, set by a hiker signaling for help, into the largest wildfire in Arizona history.
In Show Low, residents were back in their homes for the first time since June 22.
About 25,000 residents were allowed to return to the area Saturday after firefighters were able to hold the blaze to within a half-mile of Show Low's edge. The town of 7,700 was untouched, but in nearby communities, dozens of homes had been burned and blackened by the flames.
As residents poured back into the area, they found a patchwork of burned homes around the communities of Pinedale, Pinetop-Lakeside and Hon-Dah.
"I just kept praying and I knew it was going to be all right," said Mary Capuozzo of Pinetop-Lakeside.
In nearby Linden, residents were still kept from the more heavily damaged subdivision of Timberland Acres, a square mile that had been dotted with log cabins, trailers and ranch-style homes.
Residents of areas farther west of Show Low, including Heber-Overgaard, where more than 200 homes burned, were still under orders to stay out, among 3,500 to 4,000 people still kept from their homes.
In other developments:
  • Lightning sparked several wildfires in Wyoming that threatened rural homes. A 4,600-acre west of Wheatland was burning ranchland owned by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ray Hunkins, who immediately put his campaign on hold.
    "I'd guess the whole south part of our place has been burned," he said via cell phone from atop a hill overlooking his spread. "We're out of the cattle business, it looks like."
  • An 8-000-acre fire that burned through the town of Shields, N.D., was contained Sunday afternoon. It burned 30 buildings in the 15-resident town, leaving only one home, a bar and the small post office, since Saturday afternoon.
  • Thousands of people fled the South Dakota gambling town of Deadwood because of a wildfire that was 35 percent contained Sunday afternoon. Two homes and six other buildings were destroyed in the town of 1,380 residents.
  • Fire crews in Colorado extended their containment lines around a more than 71,000-acre wildfire north of Durango. It was 40 percent contained but still threatened 152 homes. The flames had destroyed 56 houses.
    WILDFIRES on Page 5A Continued from 1A WILDFIRES: Residents return to Show Low "This fire was started with a profit motive behind it."
    PAUL CHARLTON U.S. attorney
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