Lawyers Square Off In Chediski Fire Case

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Lawyers for Valinda Jo Elliott and the White Mountain Apache Tribe are squaring off over jurisdiction on tribal lands. At issue is the civil case filed by the tribe against the woman who started the Chediski portion of the Rodeo-Chediski fire.

The White Mountain Apache Tribal Court heard arguments Wednesday to dismiss charges against Elliott. Defense attorney Kevin O'Grady argued that federal law stripped away tribal jurisdiction over non-tribal members on reservation land.

Tribal attorney George Hesse countered that the White Mountain Apache Tribe has jurisdiction over all lands on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and that tribal members and non-tribal members alike must abide by tribal laws while on those lands.

After hearing the arguments, Judge Durango Fall promised to issue a ruling within a few days.

Elliott, who ignited the Chediski Fire when she lit a signal fire after becoming lost on the Fort Apache Reservation, was served with papers in the civil action in June, 2002. The action charges the 33-year-old with leaving an unattended fire and other wrongs.

When the fire merged with the Rodeo Fire, the resulting inferno became the largest fire in Arizona history.

Before it was contained, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire ravaged 470,000 acres and destroyed 467 homes -- including 200 in Heber-Overgaard -- and narrowly missed Show Low, Forest Lakes and other communities. The total cost of battling the blaze was at least $43 million, with another $28 million in damages.

The fire cost the tribe millions of dollars through the devastation of prime timber, natural resources and wildlife. If Elliott is found liable, the tribe could be awarded restitution for those losses.

Payson attorney Tim Grier, who owns a business in Forest Lakes, one of the communities impacted by the fire, doubts that the tribe will ever collect.

"She's probably going to be judgment proof," Grier said. "If they have a multi-million dollar lawsuit against her, it doesn't do them much good if she doesn't have any money ... It's probably more symbolic than anything else."

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