Colorado wildfire case to stay in tribal court
PHOENIX, AZ – An American Indian tribe’s civil case against a non-Indian
woman who started part of the largest wildfire in Arizona history
will remain in tribal court.
An attorney for Valinda Jo Elliott said the decision, if upheld, could
open every non-Indian up to lawsuits in tribal court.
“They could have jurisdiction over anybody,” attorney Kevin O’Grady
In a White Mountain Apache tribal court ruling made available Tuesday,
Chief Trial Court Judge Durango H. Fall denied Elliott’s request to
dismiss the case.
O’Grady had argued that the White Mountain Apache Tribe couldn’t pursue
its civil complaint against Elliott because it doesn’t normally have
jurisdiction over non-Indians.
O’Grady said he intends to appeal the decision in the tribe’s appellate
Tribal attorney George Hesse didn’t immediately return a call seeking
While lost on White Mountain Apache land for two days in 2002, Elliott
started a signal fire that merged into the Rodeo-Chediski fire.
The fire burned 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 homes and forced the
evacuation of 30,000 people in eastern Arizona.
It also charred sacred Apache sites and accelerated the expected demise
of the White Mountain Apaches’ timber industry, which provides 60
percent of the tribe’s income.
Elliott started the fire to get the attention of a television news
helicopter. The helicopter rescued Elliott but the fire later grew
out of control.
Elliott wasn’t criminally prosecuted for starting the fire because
federal prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence of criminal
intent on her part.
The tribe couldn’t file criminal charges against Elliott but still
brought a civil case against her.
The tribe alleges Elliott disobeyed an executive order banning nearly
all people from certain areas of the reservation because of extreme
If she loses in tribal court, the tribe said Elliott could face up
to $4,500 in fines. She also could be fined for the cost of rehabilitating
the burned land, all expenses associated with that part of the fire
and for punitive damages, the tribe said.
The other half of the Rodeo-Chediski fire was started by part-time
fire fighter Leonard Gregg, a tribal member who pleaded guilty in
federal court to intentionally setting a fire. He is awaiting sentencing