FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Firefighters won the battle against the largest wildfire in Arizona history but the Wallow firefight isn't over yet. There is a new battle ground - inside a court room as the men suspected of setting that fire face charges for the first time.
The Wallow wildfire burned more than half a million acres and today; two men say they are not
guilty of igniting it.
“It is biggest fire in Arizona history so they are quick to point the finger at somebody,” Said Justin Hallat.
And those some bodies are cousins, Caleb and David Malboeuf, who were camping in the Apache Sitgreaves national forest and are accused of leaving their camp fire unextinguished and unattended.
"These fellows grew up in the white mountains and this family will tell you, to them, the white mountains are sacred, to these boys it's sacred,” said defense attorney David Derickson.
In court, the boys pleaded not guilty but the judge ordered them banned from national forest land while they await trial.
“This is a terrible tragedy to them, they maintain that they left that campsite with a cold fire,” said Derickson. “There are all sorts of potential sources of this fire.”
The wallow fire burned 538 thousand acres, 32 homes, 36 outbuildings and cost over 79 million dollars to fight.
“They could be liable for all of it the fire suppression cost and any loss people suffer,” said Deputy US attorney Patrick Schneider.
One of those people who suffered a major loss is Jim Brannan.
“I lost everything, everything went up in smoke,” said Brannan.
Still, he doesn't believe these campers are the ones who should be held liable. He's pointing the finger back at the forest service.
“How'd they make a decision like that to allow people to go out there with open fire in an area that hadn't burned in so long?” said Brannan.
It was Memorial Day weekend so many campers were out and despite the hot, dry, windy weather the forest service lifted the fire ban.
"Who made that decision they're the ones that ought to be in here the one who made the decision to let these kids go out and go camping with an open fire,” said Brannan.
The blaze, which broke out May 29th, wasn’t fully contained until July 8th. Monsoon rains eventually put out the flames.
Assistant US Attorney Patrick Schneider said two independent investigations by the US Forest Service traced the origin of the fire 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 would conduct its own investigation to determine whether other campers might have left unattended fires over the memorial day weekend.
"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 cousins told investigators that they believed they had extinguished a campfire they lit to cook breakfast because David Malboeuf threw a candy wrapper in just before they left to go hiking, and it did not melt.
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 men noted that they are experienced campers who are familiar with the forest. Caleb Malboeuf said they built a small fire, the campsite was well used, and there was no brush near the campfire 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 stated.
The men are charged with five counts, including leaving a fire unattended and failing to maintain control of a fire that damaged a national forest.
If convicted they each face a maximum three years behind bars and $25,000 in fines plus restitution.
Their trial is set to start December 13th.