It's a message that's hard to miss. If it wasn't instilled by our parents, we see it repeatedly on those cheap plaques in souvenir shops: "Don't judge another until you've walked a mile in his moccasins."
While it would be nice to apply this precept to Valinda Jo Elliott, the lady who ignited half of the Rodeo-Chediski conflagration that topped out at nearly 500,000 acres and ruined a perfectly good summer, she just won't let us.
Elliott got lost while trying to find her way to Young. Armed with only a cell phone that was pretty much useless in the wilderness and a Bic lighter, she freaked out after a couple of days and set fire to a bush to attract a passing Channel 5 news helicopter.
The helicopter whisked her to safety, the little bush caught a major chunk of Arizona on fire, and the dreams of thousands of northern Arizona residents went up in smoke.
Elliott could have laid low at this point, waited for the decision not to file charges against her, and got on with her life. Or she could have issued a heartfelt apology and joined the victims as they toiled to clean up what was left of their homes and communities.
What she did instead is almost as incomprehensible as Bic-ing the bush in the middle of a drought with smoke from the Rodeo Fire clearly visible on the horizon. She became defensive, argumentative, almost combative.
In a press conference she said, "If you want me to apologize for saving my life, I apologize." Then she jetted off to New York City to appear on a couple of national TV shows, expressing incredulity that a tiny little Bic could start a great big forest fire. How could she have known?
Next, she made a cameo appearance in Heber-Overgaard (along with "Inside Edition"), and then went back a second time to help with the clean-up for all of one day. Unhappy with the way her visits went down with the victims of the fire, she penned a letter "to the people of Heber and Overgaard" that was printed in The Arizona Republic in which she pronounced that with her two visits she had now done her "part" and get this indignantly denied starting the Chediski Fire.
If you missed the letter, you just have to read how she put it:
"... I keep asking myself, what the hell did I do wrong? I admit I lit that signal fire, but are you people blind? I didn't light the 'Chediski' Fire, but I'm sorry you people don't want to hear the truth."
She goes on to blame DPS, Channel 5 and the U.S. Forest Service for starting the Chediski Fire because they didn't extinguish the burning bush.
Then she closes by saying, "If there is one of you who will stand in front of me and God and say you would not have done the same thing ... may God have mercy on your lying souls."
While Elliott's letter speaks volumes, please indulge me a few observations:
When 17-year-old Paul Burwick of Phoenix got lost in the Coconino National Forest earlier this month, he spent two days going in circles before he was rescued. Despite being "very dehydrated and weak," Burwick did not light a signal fire to catch the attention of a passing DPS helicopter. Waving his hands worked just fine.
On Elliott's two visits to Heber-Overgaard, she passed through Payson and the Rim country four times. Thank God she didn't get lost.
This whole episode is put into perspective by the fact that Elliott wasn't wearing moccasins. She wasn't wearing hiking boots. She was allegedly wearing flip-flops when she got lost in the forest. Somehow the line loses something when it reads, "... until you've walked a mile in her flip-flops."
There's a burning bush at the heart of this story a bush that "burned with fire" but did not consume the surrounding forest. And Elliott puts herself right there with God for the judgment. This woman is starting to get downright creepy.
(Postscript: The Bible has an answer for just about anything. To paraphrase from Exodus: Put off thy (flip-flops) from off thy feet, and geteth thyself a good pair of hiking boots.)