White Mountain Tribe Goes After Fire Starter

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The fact that Valinda Jo Elliott may yet be held accountable is good news for Tim Grier and others whose lives were forever impacted when the Rodeo-Chediski Fire roared through their world a year ago.

Elliott, who ignited the Chediski portion of that blaze when she lit a signal fire after becoming lost on the Fort Apache Reservation, was recently served with papers in a civil action suit filed by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The action charges the 32-year-old with leaving an unattended fire and other infractions.

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Tim Grier (left) and Payson Mayor Ken Murphy survey the devastation on a tour of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire last summer. Grier, a local attorney, says his Forest Lakes business is still suffering from the fire's near-miss.

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

"I hope they get her," Grier said. "I just don't buy into her story."

As a local attorney who also owns a business in Forest Lakes, where he lived for many years, Grier is able to look at this latest development from a variety of perspectives. He is also a former firefighter who served as a volunteer public information officer during the fire, providing daily briefings and moral support to some 800 evacuees huddled in the Rim Country Middle School gym.

"There's still a lot of anger in the small communities," Grier said. "In the Heber-Overgaard area they still have T-shirts for sale that calls it the ‘Dumb Bitch Fire.'

"They want somebody to answer for it," he added. "As a victim and somebody who saw his life changed, I want somebody to answer too. I think if we knew the whole story, she is one that should be answering for it."

The story Grier doesn't buy into is sketchy at best.

"Their story is that they were taking the back road to Young, and they got directions from somebody that they were supposed to go in this direction and they got lost," he said.

Considering what Grier refers to as her "sordid past" and rumors alleging Elliott and her boyfriend may have been illegally hunting for Native American pots leaves a lot of room for conjecture. What is known is that the couple became separated, and that Elliott tried to make a number of calls for help on her cell phone before the batteries went dead.

With his legal background, Grier can understand how Elliott escaped prosecution.

"The attorney general's office got a lot of criticism for not filing charges," he said, "but they had a pretty good chronology of her attempts to get help and they had it down to the minute with her phone calls to the different agencies. It pretty much legitimized what she had done. It seemed to make sense that she was making every attempt to save her neck down there."

A civil suit, however, opens up new possibilities.

"What they're probably trying to do is set up the civil part of it with leaving a campfire unattended, Grier said. "That's what they're going to have to do, is find her negligent or that she acted recklessly in starting the signal fire.

"Where they would get her is if they were able to prevail on the damages caused by the fire," he added. "Now you're talking millions and millions of dollars."

The question with a civil suit is whether Elliott can afford to pay a judgment against her.

"Of course 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."

But even if she can't pay, Grier believes there are intangible reasons to pursue her.

"Since she probably has no money, it's probably more symbolic than anything else," he said. "But there are a lot of people that would take the symbolics right now. A lot of people are very angry at what happened and what she did.

"She changed lives. A lot of people lost everything, and most people want somebody to answer for that," Grier said.

Part of the rancor toward Elliott is due to her lack of contrition. She insists anybody would have done what she did.

"Her argument is going to be that she didn't act recklessly, that she was somebody that was out there and was trying to save her own life and any reasonable person would do so," Grier said.

He added that it's hard for him to see how Elliott can explain away her behavior in light of what he and his neighbors lost.

"Personally, it's cost me thousands and thousands of dollars," he said. "I had a cabin business on the Rim that relies on tourism, and when you're evacuated in the main part of the summer, you stand to lose thousands of dollars.

"The economies (of the communities in the fire area) are still trying to recover," he added. "It just isn't the same with the momentum we lost last year."

When the final chapter is written on the Rodeo-Chediski fire, Grier believes historical perspective will take other factors into consideration.

"At the end of the day maybe what we have to consider is that we've been in a drought for 10 years," he said.

In the meantime, it's hard for some to look past what seems so obvious to the residents of the affected communities -- that extremely poor judgment by Elliott caused a lot of pain and suffering.

"It would have been different if the fire had been caused by nature," Grier said. "Maybe the T-shirt was right."

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