Tribe still wants charges 10 years after wildfire

Phoenix, Arizona (AP) June 2012

A woman accused of starting part of one of Arizona’s largest wildfires is still facing legal troubles 10 years later.

The Arizona Republic ( ) reports the White Mountain Apache Tribe is seeking a judgment in a civil lawsuit against Valinda Jo Elliott for her role in igniting the Rodeo-Chediski fire in June 2002.

Authorities say Elliott, who could not be reached for comment, was driving on June 18, 2002, from Phoenix to the remote community of Young with her boss when their car ran out of gas.  They were on the Fort Apache Reservation, passing signs advising that fires were banned and the forest was closed. After spending two nights alone near Chediski Mountain, Elliott started a fire to catch the attention of a news helicopter.

The signal fire merged with one set by Leonard Gregg, a part-time firefighter trying to give himself work. The resulting eastern Arizona blaze became the Rodeo-Chideski fire, the largest fire in state history at the time.

Crews worked for more than a week trying to get a handle on the fire. The Rodeo-Chideski burned 731 square miles and destroyed 481 structures. Apache leaders said the wildfire cost the tribe millions of dollars in timber and firefighting.

Prosecutors at the time said there was not enough evidence to convict Elliott. Then-U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said it would be difficult given Elliott’s initial dilemma and that she asked the helicopter crew before leaving if they should deal with the signal fire.

Gregg, meanwhile, was sentenced to a 10-year-prison term and $27 million in restitution for starting the 468,000-acre fire. U.S. District Court records show Gregg, who could not be reached for comment, was recently released to a halfway house.

The Apache tribe filed a civil complaint against Elliott, accusing her of eight offenses, including trespass and negligence to violations of a forest closure. The civil case has remained tangled in arguments about whether a tribe has jurisdiction over a non-Indian. Federal law prohibits Native American tribes from criminally charging a non-Indian with offenses that happened on reservations.

Elliott faces up to $4,500 in fines and restitution for other damages.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2009 that Eillott, who tried to get an injunction, must first exhaust her remedies in tribal court before turning to the federal courts.

Firefighters and residents say memories of the blaze still linger.

Jean Stapley remembers fleeing her Pinedale home with her husband, Floyd. They only managed to leave with a handful of possessions. They later saw their home engulfed in flames in news photographs.

“We lost everything,” Stapley. “It still isn’t easy.”

Mel Epps, then-fire chief in Heber-Overgaard, recalled how the fire consumed 268 buildings within three days.

“It just kept circling around us because there was so much fuel,” Epps said. “It was dark, there was so much smoke and ash in the air, like midnight in Alaska. Really sinister, with the sun just an orange dot.”

The fire burned for 60 days. Through it all, there were no serious injuries.