Part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg, 29, was hauled into a federal court in Flagstaff Sunday and charged with starting the first of the two wildfires that merged into the massive Rodeo-Chediski fire and scorched a chunk of northern Arizona twice the size of New York City.
A White Mountain Apache who worked under contract as an $8-per-hour firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Gregg allegedly admitted to investigators that he set paper-dry grass on fire with matches so he could earn money as part of a fire crew.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Stephen Verkamp charged Gregg with two counts of setting fire to timber, underbrush, grass or other flammable material June 18 near the rodeo grounds of the White Mountain Apache community of Cibecue.
Gregg, who pleaded innocent to the charges, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $500,000, Verkamp said.
Payson Fire Chief John Ross was one of countless professional firefighters across the state and nation who were blindsided by the alleged admission of a fellow firefighter.
"I was shocked and disappointed," Ross said Monday. "Unfortunately, there have been similar episodes to this one, where firefighters have set fires. They're rare, but I've seen them over my 20 years of being in the fire service. It was shocking, but it certainly shouldn't taint the fire service in any way. Every organization has folks that don't belong, and this fellow is one of those."
Gregg is the second person employed to fight wildfires to be accused of intentionally torching wildlands during the worst fire-hazard season in the recorded history of the western U.S. In Colorado last month, U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton was charged with setting the fire 40 miles southwest of Denver that has burned about 140,000 acres.
According to the criminal complaint filed against him, Gregg told an unidentified neighbor before the fire was reported that he had to get home because there was going to be a fire call. That information led investigators to match the soles of Gregg's boots to prints found near the starting point of two June 18 fires: the Rodeo and the Pina, which was extinguished by the White Mountain Apache fire crews, with Gregg's help, after it had damaged just a single acre.
Next up for Gregg will be a probable cause and bond hearing to be held 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Flagstaff, until which time he'll be held in the Coconino County Jail.
Investigators will now focus on the Chediski fire and to the question of whether charges will be filed against 31-year-old Valinda Jo Elliott, a Phoenix hiker who has admitted setting the fire to attract rescuers when she became lost.
"Certainly the investigation into the cause of the Chediski fire is ongoing," Mike Johns, a public affairs official for the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix, said. "Beyond that, we can't discuss the nature or the status of the investigation."