Cousins charged in Ariz. wildfire appear in court

AP News
Posted: Sep 19, 2011 6:11 PM
Cousins charged in Ariz. wildfire appear in court

Two cousins have been banned from national forest land while they await trial on charges that they accidentally caused the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

Caleb Malboeuf and David Malboeuf are charged with five counts, including leaving a fire unattended and failing to maintain control of a fire that damaged a national forest. Each offense carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a $5,000 fine or both, upon conviction.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Aspey set the men's release conditions at a court hearing Monday in Flagstaff, saying they could only return to the forest with their lawyer to develop their defense.

The cousins were camping in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona when their campfire spread outside its fire ring on May 29. High winds whipped the blaze, which eventually scorched about 835 square miles in Arizona and another 23 square miles in western New Mexico before firefighters declared it fully contained July 8.

The Wallow Fire destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins, and at one point, nearly 10,000 people were forced to evacuate. The firefighting effort cost more than $79 million.

David Malboeuf's vehicle was found at a trailhead about two miles from where investigators think the fire started, and the cousins' possessions were discovered at the campsite, according to court documents. Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Schneider said two independent investigations by the U.S. Forest Service traced the origin of the fire to the campsite and looked at other possible sources of ignition but found none.

"The conclusion they arrived at is there was one source _ that it started at this campsite," he said.

Caleb Malboeuf's attorney, David Derickson, said the defense team is poring over the investigate reports and wants to determine whether other campers might have left unattended fires over the Memorial Day weekend. He said the two are not guilty.

"It's a terrible tragedy to them," he said. "Whether this campfire started the fire or not, that's going to be the fight in court."

The trial is set to begin Dec. 13.

The cousins told investigators that they believed they had extinguished a campfire they lit to cook breakfast because David Malboeuf, 24, of Tucson, threw a candy wrapper in just before they left to go hiking, and it did not melt. They smelled and saw smoke near the campsite on their way back.

The men cooperated with authorities, offering consistent accounts of the camping trip. The Forest Service investigations found that the cousins made no attempt to clear flammable material from around the campfire, nor had they taken a shovel or bucket with them into the wilderness.

But the cousins noted that they are experienced campers who are familiar with the forest. Caleb Malboeuf, 26, of Benson, said their fire was small, the campsite was well-used, and there was no brush near the fire ring.

"Both stated that they believe they took every precaution needed to prevent the escape of their campfire, and that in no way did they intend to cause a forest fire," court documents state.

More than a dozen of the Malboeuf's family members and friends packed into the small courtroom. Justin Hallett, a close friend of Caleb Malboeuf, said the charges have been tough on his friend, whose family has been hunting, fishing and camping in Arizona's forests for decades, and who has a passion for "anything and everything outdoors."

"Who would want to have caused this?" Hallett said. "In no way do they have any doubt in their minds that they are not 100 percent responsible."

Jim Brannan, who lost his home in Nutrioso to the fire, said questions are swirling in residents' minds about whether the Forest Service reacted quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading, whether they were kept up to date on firefighting efforts and what can be done to replace material possessions. He and about 45 others were invited to attend Monday's hearing as victims.

"There's some very angry people out there, and it's not necessarily directed toward these two characters who are accused of starting it," Brannan said.