Old Time Crime: Contract firefighter starts Arizona's largest wildfire to date in 2002

Posted at 2:58 PM, Jun 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-18 09:48:59-04

The most extensive wildfire in Arizona history was started by a contract firefighter in June 2003. 

It was June 18, 2002, when Leonard Gregg, a contract firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told a woman that he had to get home because there was going to be a fire call. 

He was indeed, one of the first firefighters called out to fight the blaze. At the time, no one knew Gregg used matches to set fire to dry grass four miles north of the small town of Cibique in Northeastern Arizona. 

This fire would later be known as the 'Rodeo fire." 

He started the fire to get work but, "He didn't think it would get so big."

He would later tell investigators that he started the fire to get work but, "He didn't think it would get so big."

The fire spread fast, burning 9,000 acres in just three hours. Five days later the 'Rodeo' fire would merge with the Chedeski fire, which was started by near Heber, Arizona, by a woman who started a signal fire, after getting lost in the woods. 

The final numbers of the 'Rodeo-Chedeski fire' were staggering

The final numbers of the 'Rodeo-Chedeski fire' were staggering; $43 million to control the fire, 6,600 fire personnel, total acres destroyed 460,182, structures burned 491 and nearly $50,000 residents of Showlow, Linden, Clay Springs and Pinedale were evacuated. 

Firefighters saved over 2,000 homes

On June 20 alone, the fire burned nearly 71,000 acres. 

Firefighters saved over 2,000 homes. 

The woman was not charged in the starting of the Chedeski fire, even though she was on restricted Apache tribal land when she got lost. 

In July 2002,  Gregg was indicted by a federal grand jury. 

He was later convicted, and in March 2004, he was sentenced in federal court to 10 years in prison and fined nearly $28 million. 

Gregg was released from federal prison in June 2011 after serving nine years of his ten-year sentence.