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Police suspect arson in giant tire dump fire

August 2, 1997

GILA RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Ariz. (AP) _ A huge pile of junk tires that police suspect was set ablaze has been the subject of a hot debate between tribal and county authorities over who should remove it.

The shredded remnants of 3 million tires stored on reservation land caught fire Friday and was burning strongly today. Forty to 50 people fled after an approaching dust storm began began blowing acrid smoke toward nearby homes.

Tribal officials had warned of the fire dangers months ago during the dispute between the Gila River Indian Community and Maricopa County.

``There’s been a lot of haggling and this is turning out to be very suspicious,″ said Warren Youngman, Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator.

He declined to elaborate on his reasons for suspecting arson. Reservation officials asked the federal authorities to investigate.

The tires once belonged to the county and were supposed to have been recycled under a county contract with Colinas Tire Co. The company signed a deal with the tribe to store the tires on the reservation until they could be recycled, but the company went bankrupt and left the tires.

The county settled with Colinas and a partner in the recycling venture for $330,000 in February, but that deal did not address what to do with the tires. Maricopa County insists it has no responsibility for them.

Winds fanned the flames, further hampering efforts by firefighters already short on water in the remote desert area 35 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Mark Openshaw of the Gila River Fire Department said firefighters had to truck in water and were trying to get heavy equipment to move piles which had not ignited. Such fires are difficult to douse because they burn so hot.

Even as the flames jumped from pile to pile in the huge dump, the finger-pointing continued. County spokesman Scott Celley said the tribe rejected the county’s offer of $230,000 and technical assistance to get rid of the unwanted tires.

``It’s a tragedy that they (tribal officials) have not responded to the offers of help we extended in months past,″ Celley said. ``We never suggested that our offer would solve the problem in its entirety, and we wanted to do the best with what we had.″

Tribal Gov. Mary Thomas called the offer ``an insult,″ noting that it would have cost $1 million to $2 million to get rid of the tires.

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