A federal judge showed little mercy in sentencing firefighter Van Bateman to two years in prison. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt doled out the sentence --the maximum he could impose under a plea agreement -- early this week in Phoenix.
Bateman, 57, pleaded guilty to starting a blaze without authorization, after originally being indicted by a federal grand jury on one count each of arson and setting a timber fire.
In sentencing Bateman, the judge rejected a plea by attorney Grant Woods to place his client on probation. The judge also ignored more than 50 letters, some from former Forest Service employees, urging leniency for Bateman.
One of the two blazes he was 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 .10 acre near Flagstaff.
Bateman said he intended the fires to be controlled burns only, but admitted he did not obtain proper authorization because he wanted to avoid time-consuming Forest Service bureaucracy.
In some of the letters of support, former firefighters admitted they had done the same thing in the past.
Jim Paxon, a veteran wildfire expert who gained nationwide fame during the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire east of Payson, called the judge's sentence "overly harsh and retributive, without considering Van's personal fire history."
Bateman's resume includes being one of the first commanders assigned to the Rodeo-Chediski blaze.
Paxon, now a wildfire correspondent for NBC Channel 12 News, claims it was Bateman's expertise that saved two White Mountain area towns.
"Van's team completed a difficult burnout along U.S. Highway 60 that prevented fire from burning through Show Low and Lakeside," Paxon wrote on his wildfire blog site.
Bateman traveled to New York City and the Pentagon following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and helped with recovery and relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
Paxon calls Bateman "a good man ... a leader and one of the most experienced firefighters in history ... I would follow his lead into the belly of the monster anytime."
But federal prosecutor Kim Hare said Bateman's ego got in his way and he tried to take the law into his own hands.
Paxon and other supporters counter by saying there was a time when prescribed fires were simpler, but Bateman did not evolve with the policy changes.
"What was OK 20 years ago is no longer," Paxon said.