Scales Of Justice Unbalanced In Fire Starter Cases


There are a couple of interesting stories about justice and those so-called balanced scales she carries in the Aug. 5 edition of The Arizona Republic.

One story is about a woman who was responsible for a 150,000-acre fire in the Sequoia National Forest in 2002.

The woman, who admitted she started the worst fire on record in the Sequoia National Forest when she lit a campfire, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The U.S. Forest Service also is seeking $148 million for the cost of fighting the fire, forest restoration and other losses. In addition, private landowners are seeking restitution for their losses. This woman started a fire without a permit in order to cook hot dogs.

Another article in the same edition was about the Rodeo-Chediski Fire's infamous igniter -- Valinda Jo Elliott.

The story reveals that Elliott has asked a tribal judge to dismiss a civil case filed by Native Americans for her part in starting one-half of the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Elliott's lawyer contends that the tribe doesn't have jurisdiction to go after Elliott.

Elliott wasn't prosecuted by the government for starting the fire because federal prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence of criminal intent.

If the tribal suit against Elliott is successful, she could face up to $4,500 in fines. She could also be fined for the cost of rehabilitation, as well as all expenses associated with the Chediski Fire and for punitive damages.

The Arizona fire burned 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 homes and forced evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

And while Elliott has faced no federal penalties, the man accused of starting the "other (Rodeo) half" of the fire, Leonard Gregg, is facing a trial on federal criminal charges. Gregg, a firefighter, allegedly started the fire in order to create work -- making money to live.

Elliott has admitted she started a fire to signal a helicopter because she was lost, and because her life might have been at stake.

She and her male traveling companion were on a forest road, in a national forest closed due to fire danger when they became lost. The two were supposedly checking the vending machines operated by the man's company. There have been no consequences for being in the forest illegally, as well as none for starting the fire.

It seems the scales of justice are out of balance.

A woman starts a 150,000-acre fire to eat a hot dog and has to spend 18 months in jail and may have to pay more than $200 million in fines.

Gregg, who started the Rodeo Fire to earn a living, faces federal charges that could carry jail time and fines as well.

And Elliott, in the forest illegally, under somewhat suspect circumstances, does the one thing common sense and experts say not to do: leave her vehicle. She walked around a tinder-dry forest in skimpy clothes and sandals, carrying only a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She wandered around for two days, then started a fire to get the attention of a news helicopter on its way to cover another fire. She faces no federal charges, no federal fines.

This woman has been playing pseudo-celebrity for more than a year -- if not for outright compensation, at least for free rides and accommodations in many cases -- and now she is arguing she should not have to pay a measly $4,000 for her stupidity and all the harm it caused.

The balanced scales of "Justice" certainly are a cruel joke in the case of fires in our national forests.

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