Firefighter charged with setting "Rodeo" fire

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CIBECUE, Ariz. ? A member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe has been arrested and charged with intentionally setting a pair of fires, including the one now known as the "Rodeo" fire in Arizona, reported USA Today.

Leonard Gregg, 29, was charged at a June 30 hearing in Flagstaff. When he attempted to apologize for his actions, federal Judge Stephen Verkamp stopped him from making any admission of guilt at the hearing.

Gregg, who has a ninth-grade education, works seasonally as a BIA-contracted firefighter and resides on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Reportedly upset over his parents' drinking problems and his own lack of work, he allegedly set the fires on June 18 so that he could get some hours in on a fire crew.

The first blaze he started was confined to an acre and snuffed out; the second, the "Rodeo" fire, merged with another fire accidentally set by a lost hiker. The combined "Rodeo-Chedinski" blaze had reportedly destroyed some 470 homes and consumed 463,000 acres through June 30. The Associated Press reported on July 1 that the fire was 45 percent contained by fire lines on its eastern edge near the town of Show Low. On its western side, however, the fire continued to rage out of control, the AP reported.

Charged with two counts of willfully setting fire to timber, underbrush and other flammable material, Gregg faces 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines if convicted. A court-appointed attorney will defend the accused, who is being held at Coconino County Jail.

The alleged fire-starter was done-in when footprints matching his boots were found at the fires' points of origin, and when a witness said that Gregg mentioned having to combat the Rodeo fire before it was reported to authorities.

The Arizona Republic, on July 1, reported that, while some 25,000 evacuees were allowed to return to their homes in burned-out areas, another 5,000 people remained displaced. The cost of fighting the blaze has exceeded $17 million, the Republic said.

This incident marks the second time in the past month that a firefighter has been accused of setting destructive forest fires. In June, Forest Service employee Terry Barton was charged with arson in connection with the intentional setting of a Colorado fire that has burned a million acres in the Pike National Forest southwest of Denver. That fire is reportedly 90 percent contained after torching some 138,000 acres. Barton has pleaded innocent.

Elsewhere, Paul James Valdez, 27, of Tularosa, a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, pleaded innocent on June 28 to charges of arson and making a false report. Valdez, employed by the tribe as a wildlife surveyor, was charged with setting the half-acre Lower Cooley Fire on June 2 with a time-delay device.

(Compiled from news service reports.)