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Gregg Accused of Seeking Fire Income

July 2, 2002

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CIBECUE, Ariz. (AP) _ As a child, Leonard Gregg enjoyed watching slurry bombers attack wildfires and wanted to become a firefighter. As an adult, he achieved his goal.

Now the part-time firefighter is accused of setting a blaze that combined with another to form the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Prosecutors said Gregg, 29, did it to earn money as part of a fire crew.

Wilson Gregg, the suspect’s 41-year-old brother, said Monday that his younger brother was fascinated by flames and would imitate slurry bombers as a child.

``He put boxes in a line and would pretend he was dropping slurry on those boxes,″ Wilson Gregg, also a part-time firefighter, said as he sat on a fence post outside his home, with white ash drifting down on him.

Leonard Gregg once spread a cooking fire across the family’s yard when he was about 4 years old, his brother said. ``You know how little kids are, they like to play with fire,″ he said.

Leonard Gregg was unemployed before the wildfire, but gave any money he had to his girlfriend and her six children, his brother said. Authorities said he made $8 an hour fighting fires.

``His dream’s cut short now because of the financial crunch in his household,″ said Wilson Gregg. ``He probably thought no one would catch him.″

The 467,580-acre blaze had destroyed at least 423 homes and was about 70 percent contained Tuesday. It is expected to be fully contained by Sunday, fire information officer Jim Whittington said.

Some crews on the blaze’s northwest section were going to be released to fight fires elsewhere in the country, fire information officer Bruce Palmer said.

Low humidity and light wind were forecast Tuesday, along with a chance of isolated dry thunderstorms that could produce erratic wind with no rain, Palmer said.

Wilson Gregg said he didn’t believe his younger brother understood the implications of what he had done.

Some residents of the White Mountain Apache reservation were reluctant to say anything about Leonard Gregg or his family. Some said they were concerned about what the family would think if they talked.

Others said they were angered that one of their own was accused in the fire, which destroyed a large swatch of the ponderosa pines that are a major part of the White Mountain Apaches’ economy.

``It’s devastating,″ said Travis Duryea, one of Leonard Gregg’s neighbors. ``That was our bread and butter.″

Wilson Gregg said his family had gotten threatening phone calls from within the community since his brother was charged.

If convicted of both counts of willfully setting fire to timber or underbrush, Gregg could face 10 years in prison and be fined $500,000. A preliminary hearing was set for Wednesday.

Gregg is the second person employed to fight wildfires who is accused of setting blazes during one of the country’s most destructive fire seasons. In Colorado, a former U.S. Forest Service employee was charged with setting the fire about 40 miles southwest of Denver that has burned about 137,760 acres.

Fire officials met with local authorities Monday to discuss a timetable for allowing 3,500 to 4,000 evacuees to return to their Arizona homes. About 25,000 people already had been allowed to return to Show Low and some nearby towns during the weekend.

Fire information officer Tim Buxton said it would be at least a few more days before the remaining evacuees were allowed to go back.

Major fires active Tuesday in eight Western states had charred nearly 1 million acres, the National Interagency Fire Center said. Nationwide, fire so far this year have burned 2.8 million acres, more than twice last year’s pace.

In South Dakota’s Black Hills, officials began allowing Deadwood residents driven out by a wildfire to return to the historic Wild West town Monday night. The fire, which started Saturday, had forced the evacuation of 10,000 to 15,000 residents and tourists from Deadwood and parts of nearby Lead during the weekend.

The wind-whipped fire in rough terrain had grown to 6,850 acres on Monday and was 20 percent contained, down from 35 percent on Sunday, officials said. Three houses and nine other buildings had been destroyed.

Near Durango, Colo., some people evacuated from homes were allowed to return home Monday but warned to be ready to leave on quick notice if a 72,500-acre fire flares up again. About 150 people remained evacuated. The fire, which had destroyed 56 homes, was 50 percent contained.

In northeastern Utah, a 14,000-acre fire forced 200 people to flee their homes in the town of Dutch John as flames came within a few miles of Flaming Gorge Dam and its hydroelectric plant. The residents remained out of their homes Tuesday.


On the Net:

Arizona fire: http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/news/rodeo_fire

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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