In a modern day version of the water feuds once common in the wild West, longtime Tonto Basin rancher Clarence "Fred" Conway shot at a firefighting helicopter as it sucked water from his stock pond to battle the nearby Picture Fire.
According to federal prosecutors, Conway, 59, used a shotgun to shoot at the chopper's water collection bucket as the aircraft hovered over the pond on his Greenback Ranch on June 30.
A grand jury indicted him Wednesday on a single count of interfering with the performance of federal officers or contractors.
According to his attorney, Conway had warned the U.S. Forest Service not to take water from his ranch after that agency ignored his claim for $2,000 to pay for water used to fight another fire last year.
Conway, who was concerned about the welfare of his cattle, fired two shots into the helicopter's water collection bucket. If convicted he could receive a sentence of up to one year in prison.
Repeated calls to Conway's ranch were not answered.
Tonto National Forest official Dave Killebrew said the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix has told forest officials not to discuss the subject.
"We are being told all requests should be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office," Killebrew said.
Repeated calls to the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix were not returned.
Local writer and longtime rancher Jinx Pyle said Conway's ancestors were among the first to settle in Tonto Basin.
"David Harer was the one that settled in Greenback (Valley in the Sierra Ancha Mountains in 1875), and the Conways are descendants," Pyle said.
"The Forest Service basically closed their permit and told them to take their cattle off, so they've got all their cattle on private land now and they use that water to irrigate as well as for drinking water. There's only so much water, so when the Forest Service comes along and starts dipping water it hurts their carrying capacity.
"When they did that last year, Freddy sent them a bill and they didn't pay it. So he told them, ‘No more,' and I guess he meant it."
The Picture Fire, 24 miles southeast of Payson between Punkin Center and Young, started June 20 and reached 12,665 acres before it was contained on June 30.