Chediski Fire-Starter Won't Be Charged

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Valinda Jo Elliott will face no criminal charges for setting the signal fire that raged into the Chediski half of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

But one of the Heber residents whose business burned to the ground has been arrested for his response to the announcement by U.S Attorney Paul Charlton.

And Friday morning, Elliott was in New York appearing on a national morning-TV show.

Charlton's announcement was made early yesterday afternoon before a crowd of Heber-Overgaard residents in Heber's Mogollon High School gymnasium blocks from the Rodeo-Chediski's greatest damage.

Explaining the decision, the federal prosecutor said there was no proof Elliott acted with criminal intent and that the facts supported a "necessity defense," which allows a person to break the law in order to save a life.

Some in the crowd booed, some stormed out. But Steve Lillie owner of the now non-existent Heber Springs RV Park that had been under construction when the fire swept through town stayed longer than he should have.

"He stood up and threw a pretty good-sized burned log, I'd guess between 4 to 6 feet long, over the audience and onto the gym floor," Dave Neff, president of the Heber-Overgaard Chamber of Commerce, said. "The gym floor had just been refurbished, and the log put a nice dent into it."

Lillie was arrested and taken from the scene by Navajo County Sheriff's officers, and "after a few more questions and unsatisfactory answers, the whole crowd left in kind of a rowdy fashion," Neff said.

Meanwhile, Elliott and her attorney, David Michael Cantor, had left for New York City, for a appearance this morning on CBS' The Early Show.

Elliott has admitted that, after being lost in the woods for two days, she set a signal fire June 20 that spread out of control and merged with the Rodeo fire, which was also human-caused. Together, Rodeo-Chediski cost more than $43 million to fight, forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people, consumed 470,000 acres and destroyed 423 homes, about half of which were in the Heber-Overgaard area.

"I'm not happy with the decision," Neff said, echoing the sentiment of the majority of his neighbors.

"Basically, the rule in the forest was no fires, no cigarettes, no nothing. Yet this woman set a fire.

"There's facts as the law sees it and the facts as this community sees it. But we're dealing with the pain, not just the facts.

"What can you say? People are angry. Just as the community was starting to heal ... we get another blow. It's going to create another wound."

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