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Firestarters are criminals and must be treated as such



Published: Mon, July 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



There can be no mercy shown for Leonard Gregg, a resident of Arizona, and Terry Barton, a resident of Colorado, if they are found guilty of, or plead guilty to having started the forest fires in their home states that caused destruction of historic proportions. Why no mercy? Because Gregg and Barton were in the fire-fighting business and, thus, knew the dangers associated with starting a fire in the midst of a drought. They weren't a couple of innocents who made a mistake.

Gregg, a part-time firefighter, has pleaded innocent to a charge that he started the fire that charred 469,320 acres of pine forest in eastern Arizona's White Mountains. More than 400 homes were destroyed, about half of them in the Heber-Overgaard area.

"I knew there wasn't much left but ashes," said Lester Wagner, who returned to the ash-covered lot where his home once stood. "But it still hurts."

More than 30,000 Arizona residents were evacuated when the fire swept through the region.

Gregg, 29, told an investigator he set the fire so he could get work on a fire crew, according to court documents.

Six deaths

In Denver, a federal judge delayed the Aug. 26 trial of Barton, the former Forest Service employee, charged with deliberately starting the largest wildfire in Colorado history. No new trial date has been set. The blaze destroyed 133 homes and blackened 137,760 acres. Six firefighters died while trying to contain the fire.

The latest victim was Alan Wyatt, 61, of Ontario, Ore., who was looking in a different direction when a tree fell on him Tuesday. Wyatt was part of a four-member private contracting team working on hazardous tree removal north of Durango.

If Barton is convicted, she deserves the maximum penalty because of her attempts to deceive investigators. When she first called in to report the fire, she suggested that it was started by unknown individuals. Then, when that theory began to fall apart, she said that she had mistakenly started the blaze when she burned a letter from her estranged husband.

But investigators found that explanation also lacked merit, and Barton was subsequently indicted for intentionally starting the blaze.

Given the cost in lives and in private and public property, Gregg in Arizona and Barton in Colorado should be sent away for a very long time if they are convicted. They weren't just playing with matches. The matches in their hands became weapons of mass destruction.

In another context, they would be viewed as terrorists.




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