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David Mattingly: Arizona arrest brings disbelief

CNN's David Mattingly
CNN's David Mattingly  

(CNN) -- Firefighters on Monday have contained 45 percent of a raging wildfire in eastern Arizona, the worst in the state's history.

A man who has worked as a part-time firefighter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs was charged Sunday in connection with starting the Rodeo fire and one other blaze in Arizona -- possibly with a profit-making motive. Leonard Gregg, 29, appeared before a magistrate Sunday in Flagstaff.

CNN Correspondent David Mattingly talked Monday to CNN anchor Paula Zahn on the latest developments.

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MATTINGLY: News of the arrest [is] racing across Arizona almost as fast as that devastating wildfire that blackened more than 450,000 acres and destroyed more than 400 homes. The fact that the person accused is a part-time firefighter is stirring emotions even more deeply. ...

Twenty-nine-year-old Leonard Gregg [is] accused of deliberately setting fires on Apache reservation land in Arizona in hopes of getting some part-time work as a firefighter. The Rodeo fire, it is called, eventually led to the biggest and costliest wildfire in Arizona's history. ...

MATTINGLY: According to federal officials, Gregg was trained to fight forest fires and had been hired to do so in the past by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a job that pays from $10 to $20 an hour. Gregg lives in the reservation town of Cibecue, ground zero for what firefighters have come to call a monster. ...

Emotions in Arizona [are] similar to those in Colorado, where a Forest Service employee is blamed for the devastating Hayman fire. Disbelief, anger and embarrassment for firefighters. ...

Days after being set, the Rodeo fire merged with the Chediski fire, which started as a signal for help by an injured hiker. That investigation is ongoing.

Together, the cost of destruction is staggering. Hundreds of millions in lost Apache timber alone. Millions more from hundreds of damaged and destroyed homes. ...

And the scope of that damage is sinking in [Monday] morning as people return home. ...

ZAHN: Did they have any idea before they came back that that's what they would be looking at?

MATTINGLY: People were keeping very close tabs on what was happening in their area. Hotlines were set up so that they could call in and find out if their house was still standing.

There were no surprises. People came home knowing that their house was either standing or destroyed. But still the people who saw their houses destroyed, when they first saw them, it was a terribly emotional moment -- actually as it was for people who saw their homes standing.

In fact, in Show Low, when people returned, that was one of the big success stories; everybody's home was just fine. People cried when they came home to see that their house was still standing.

ZAHN: ... Are you aware if the homeowners were able to get anything out of that house before they had to evacuate?

MATTINGLY: The houses in this area in Pinedale were on the front lines very early on in the fire, and some people did not make it out with very much. Others had a little more warning -- some people [who were] more experienced were able to pack some bags, but by and large, people were not able to take furniture; a lot of them did not take important belongings. There are losses that everyone is having to deal with.

ZAHN: And are you aware if any of these people had insurance?

MATTINGLY: Some people had insurance; I'm sure some people did not. The same with any disaster, I suppose. There are people on both sides dealing with those kinds of losses.




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