- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (AP) A massive wildfire that has destroyed more than 400 homes in the mountains of eastern Arizona was sparked in part by a contract firefighter who hoped to make money fighting the flames, prosecutors said yesterday.
Leonard Gregg, 29, worked part-time as a firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was among the first called to fight the blaze. According to a statement filed in federal court by a BIA investigator, Mr. Gregg said he set the fire so he could get work on a fire crew.
"This fire was started with a profit motive behind it," U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said yesterday.
At a hearing in federal court in Flagstaff yesterday, a tired-looking Mr. Gregg said, "I'm sorry for what I did."
But U.S. Magistrate Stephen Verkamp cut him off, saying he shouldn't make any admission of guilt at the hearing.
Mr. Gregg was arrested Saturday in connection with two fires set June 18 near the Fort Apache Indian Reservation town of Cibeque. One fire was put out, but the other exploded up steep terrain and quickly spread, threatening the town of Show Low and overrunning two smaller communities just to the west.
The wildfire merged with another, started by a lost hiker signaling a helicopter, and became the largest in Arizona history.
By today, the 452,000-acre combined blaze had destroyed at least 423 homes. It was about 35 percent contained by fire lines near Show Low but continued to burn out of control to the west.
According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Gregg said he had set the fires near Cibeque by using matches to set dry grass aflame. Before the fire was reported, he told a woman he had to get home because there was going to be a fire call, the complaint said.
Mr. Gregg didn't expect the fire to get so big, the complaint said.
If convicted of both counts of willfully setting fire to timber or underbrush, Mr. Gregg could receive 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Jim Paxon, a fire spokesman, called yesterday's revelation "gut-wrenching."
"It causes a lot of angst and heartburn and questioning," Mr. Paxon said.
The judge said an attorney would be appointed for Mr. Gregg and set a preliminary hearing for Wednesday. Mr. Gregg, a resident of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, is being held in the Coconino County Jail.
Firefighters continued to fight the blaze yesterday and were focused on keeping the flames from bursting out of steep canyons and into the 600 homes of Forest Lakes, about 40 miles west of Show Low.
In Show Low, residents were back in their homes for the first time since June 22.
About 25,000 of them were allowed to return to the area Saturday after firefighters were able to hold the blaze to within a half-mile of the edge of the town of 7,700 people, but in nearby communities, dozens of homes had been burned and blacked by the flames.
As residents poured back into the area, they found a patchwork of burned homes around the communities of Pinedale, Pinetop-Lakeside and Hon-Dah.
"I just kept praying, and I knew it was going to be all right," said Mary Capuozzo of Pinetop-Lakeside.
In nearby Linden, residents were still kept from the more heavily damaged subdivision of Timberland Acres, a square mile that had been dotted with log cabins, trailers and ranch-style homes.

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