Judge Upholds Charges In Chediski Fire Case

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The civil case against Valinda Jo Elliott can proceed, according to a ruling issued by White Mountain Apache Tribal Judge Durango Fall last week.

Fall denied a motion to dismiss the case filed by Kevin O'Grady, Elliott's attorney. O'Grady argued that the White Mountain Apache Tribe did not have jurisdiction over Elliott because she is not a tribal member, even though she started the fire on reservation land.

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When she got lost and started a signal fire, she also started the Chediski Fire. When it teamed up with the Rodeo Fire to create the greatest conflagration in Arizona history, Valinda Jo Elliott (inset) became a household name, especially in the Rim country and other areas impacted by the inferno.

In issuing the ruling, Fall sided with tribal attorney George Hesse who argued that the White Mountain Apache Tribe has jurisdiction over non-members when tribal laws and codes have been violated. The tribe, Hesse maintained, has jurisdiction over all lands on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and tribal members and non-tribal members alike must abide by tribal laws while on those lands.

Elliott, who started the Chediski portion of the Rodeo-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, after the U.S. attorney general declined to file federal charges against her. 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.

The Rodeo Fire was also started on White Mountain Apache tribal land five miles northeast of Cibecue by Leonard Gregg, a 29-year-old contract firefighter who wanted more work. He was originally charged with two counts of arson in federal court, but was subsequently found incompetent to stand trial.

The White Mountain Apache Tribal Court will now schedule a hearing date for the charges against Elliott to be heard.

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