Firefighter Pleads Guilty To Starting Two Wildfires

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A firefighter who once penned a letter to the editor of the Payson Roundup thanking the towns of Pine, Strawberry and Payson for their support during the 2004 Webber fire has pleaded guilty to setting another wildfire that same year.

Van Bateman, 55, entered the plea Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court, prosecutors said.

A federal grand jury indicted him earlier for one count each of arson and setting a timber fire, Coconino National Forest Public Information Officer Raquel Romero-Poturalski said.

One of the two blazes he is charged with setting, the Boondock Fire, burned about 22 acres of ponderosa pine in June 2004 near Mormon Lake. The other, the Mother Fire, burned about 1/10 acre near Flagstaff.

Only three months before the Boondock Fire, Bateman was the Incident Commander on the Webber Fire, which burned 4,311 acres 2.5 miles east of Pine and 11 miles north of Payson.

Five days after it was discovered, the blaze was contained thanks to successful burnouts and a steady rain that fell April 2. A week after the fire was contained, Bateman wrote a letter to the editor in which he explained the Incident Management Team's strategy in putting out the blaze and issued "a heartfelt thanks" for the support the three communities gave the firefighters.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but investigators said at the time it was human-caused. United States National Forest Supervisor of Law Enforcement Officers John Nelson said all leads in the investigation of the cause of the Webber Fire have been exhausted and Van Bateman is not a suspect.

Bateman wrote in his confession, "The line between a good fireman and an arsonist is a fine line. I did not do this for profit or gain. I am happily married. I have no idea why I started these two fires."

In 2002, Bateman was one of the first commanders assigned to the Rodeo-Chediski fire east of Payson. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he traveled to New York to assist firefighters there.

Bateman is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 22, 2007 before U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt.

Bateman or his lawyer, Grant Woods, could not be reached for comment.

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