Arson suspect arrested

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WHITERIVER, Ariz. ? White Mountain Apache tribal member Leonard Gregg, a contract firefighter for the BIA Forestry Department, was arrested on June 29 on charges of setting the worst fire in Arizona history.

Gregg, 29, admitted to investigators that he started two fires on June 18, one smaller blaze near his home that was quickly extinguished mid-morning, and the "Rodeo" fire, so-named because it was started near the White Mountain Apache rodeo grounds two miles north of Cibecue about 4:00 p.m.

The Rodeo fire quickly swept through steep canyons and eventually merged with another fire in the area, the Chediski fire, started accidentally by an Anglo woman who was lost hiking and was trying to signal a helicopter. The combined blazes soon became the largest wildfire in the state's history, charring nearly a half-million acres. An estimated 60 percent of the damage fell on heavily forested tribal land.

At press time, the Rodeo-Chediski fire had burned more than 464,000 acres, destroyed 423 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of some 30,000 residents on the reservation and in nearby communities of Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, Heber, Overgaard, Linden and Forest Lakes.

It has also devastated the reservation's struggling economy and will likely force more than 700 mill workers to be laid off at the tribe's logging and milling business, a main source of revenue for the tribe. A preliminary estimate by the BIA valued the loss of 702 million board feet of lumber belonging to the tribe at $237 million.

"We operated two large timber mills and a very busy logging operation on our reservation that employed 700 tribal members," said Milfred Cosen, director of tribal enterprises. "Wages were between $10 and $12 an hour. That's all gone now because our logs are burned."

According to a criminal complaint, Gregg told BIA special agent Daniel Hawkins that he had set the fires in hopes of being called in to work on a seasonal fire crew so that he could earn money to pay his bills. Unemployment on the Fort Apache reservation is about 62 percent, and firefighting provides jobs for more than 1,000 tribal members each year.

"He admitted that he expected to work on the fire suppression teams for about a day but that he did not expect this fire to develop to the degree that it did," Hawkins said in a sworn affidavit.

Gregg, who has been charged with two counts of setting fire to timber, underbrush, grass or other flammable material, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $500,000. He was being held at the Coconino County jail in Flagstaff pending a July 3 bond hearing.

At a June 30 preliminary hearing in Flagstaff, Ariz. before federal Magistrate Stephen Verkamp, Gregg tried to apologize. "Can I say I'm sorry for what I did?" he asked, before the magistrate instructed him not to make any admission of guilt.

Hawkins said Gregg used matches to set dry grass aflame and said he was angry with his parents for their drinking problems on the day he set the fires. Gregg was given up by his parents when he was four years old and adopted by another Apache family who lived close by. His adoptive brother, Wilson Gregg, told reporters that Leonard was always fascinated by fire as a small boy, but the family never expected he would do anything malicious.

According to the BIA investigation team who interviewed Cibecue residents, a witness stated Gregg had been at her home before the fire was reported and told her he had to leave because he was expecting to be called to a fire "out there," pointing in the direction of the rodeo grounds.

BIA investigators found matching boot prints at both fire ignition points and Gregg later admitted they were his.

Meanwhile, news that an Apache tribal member was responsible for the blaze intensified racial tensions in nearby border towns where tribal members go to shop. Accusations that the tribe should have done more to contain the fires have been directed at Apache families shopping in Show Low.

Reno Johnson Sr., chief of staff for the tribe said, "There's a long tradition of blaming the tribe when things go wrong. The fires are still under investigation and we know that one was started by a white hiker. But already people are screaming at us at the local Wal-Mart because the fire started on Indian land and then burned the border towns."

Through many tribal members were also evacuated and are facing extreme economic hardship, Johnson said the tribe had not received any assistance from money raised for victims by Phoenix TV stations and the Red Cross.

"I doubt we will," he said. Nor did President Bush visit the reservation when he stopped in Show Low last week, though 60 percent of the fire occurred on tribal lands.

In the wake of the devastation caused by the fire, tribal officials had scaled back working hours at tribal headquarters to a 32-hour week and reduced salaries in response to the financial emergency.

As they try to determine what can be done to rescue their economy and their businesses, the outlook seems bleak. White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey said that in addition to the economic and emotional havoc wrought by the fire ? which is still burning ? the tribe faces ongoing social problems that include a lack of education and infrastructure to provide much-needed jobs.

More than 45 percent of adults over 25 are high school dropouts who have long struggled with poverty. A quarter of the tribe's 12,500 members doesn't own a car and nearly half don't have telephone service. The challenge to provide jobs for tribal members is now more daunting than ever.

Responding to the hostility that his people are facing in the border towns, Massey said, "It's important to remember that this was an individual, not the tribe, that set this fire."

Meanwhile, dozens of fires are continue to burn in the drought-ridden West affecting the Navajo Nation, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and California.

Those who wish to contribute emergency assistance to White Mountain Apache families may contact Roland Johnson Sr. or Chairman Massey at (928) 338-4346.