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UPDATED: Cousins Plead Guilty to Ariz. Fire Charges

David Malbouef (AP)
David Malbouef (AP)
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Two cousins charged with accidentally causing the largest wildfire in Arizona history pleaded guilty Tuesday to a pair of misdemeanor charges after reaching an agreement with prosecutors.

Caleb Malboeuf and David Malboeuf each face up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine after admitting in federal magistrate court to leaving a campfire unattended and building a campfire without clearing flammable material to prevent it from escaping. The Malboeufs had each faced five charges and penalties that included more than two years behind bars and $30,000 in fines.

The cousins were camping in eastern Arizona’s Apache Sitgreaves National Forest last May when their campfire spread outside its ring. High winds whipped the blaze, later dubbed the Wallow Fire, which burned more than 538,000 acres in Arizona and parts of western New Mexico before it was fully contained on July 8.

The Malboeufs told U.S. Magistrate Mark Aspey that they believed the campfire was out because they did not see any flames or any smoke rising hours after they had lit it to cook breakfast. But they conceded that they had not stirred the coals or felt them to ensure it was properly extinguished before they went for a hike.

Caleb Malbouef (AP)

They smelled and saw smoke near the campsite on their way back.

Investigators for the U.S. Forest Service found David Malboeuf’s vehicle at a trailhead about two miles from where they believe the fire started, and the cousins’ possessions were at the campsite.

Caleb Malboeuf’s attorney, David Derickson, said he believes the cousins should be sentenced to probation instead of jail time.

“These are guys who are experienced campers, who spend 30 nights a year under the stars,” he said. “They’ve started and extinguished thousands of fires. The lesson is, no matter how dead you think a campfire is, you’ve got to put your hands in there, you’ve got to pour water on it to make sure it’s out.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Schneider said the plea agreement was a reasonable resolution to a case in which the men had cooperated with authorities and offered consistent accounts of the camping trip. He said he will be soliciting input from fire victims on restitution and sentencing in the coming months. Sentencing is scheduled for June 20.

The 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.

“Everyone is affected differently by the fire, and there’s probably a wide variety of opinions regarding what ought to happen,” Schneider said.


7:53am 3/27/12 — Cousins Charged in Wallow Fire To Change Plea

By Felicia Fonseca/The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Two cousins charged with accidentally causing the largest wildfire in Arizona history are set for a change of plea hearing today after reaching an agreement with prosecutors.

Caleb Malboeuf and David Malboeuf were camping in eastern Arizona last May when their campfire spread outside its fire ring. High winds whipped the blaze, later dubbed the Wallow Fire, that burned more than 538,000 acres in eastern Arizona and parts of western New Mexico before it was fully contained July 8.

The cousins appeared in federal magistrate court last September, pleading not guilty to five counts that included leaving a fire unattended and failing to maintain control of a fire that damaged a national forest. Caleb Malboeuf’s attorney, David Derickson, has said the plea agreement will lessen the charges but declined to provide details, as did the prosecution.

David Malboeuf’s vehicle was found at a trailhead about two miles from where investigators believe the fire started, and the cousins’ possessions were discovered at the campsite, according to court documents.

The men have cooperated with authorities, offering consistent accounts of the camping trip. They noted that they are experienced campers who are familiar with the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, where they built a small fire at a well-used campsite that was free of brush near the fire ring, Caleb Malboeuf said in court documents.

But U.S. Forest Service investigators found that the cousins made no attempt to clear flammable material from around the campsite, nor had they taken a shovel or bucket with them into the wilderness.

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

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.


4:20pm 9/19/11 — Cousins Charged in Wallow Fire Appear in Court

By The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — 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.

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Sept. 19, 2011 3:35 p.m.

By Felicia Fonseca / The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — 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.

U.S. Magistrate Mark Aspey set the release conditions for Caleb Malboeuf and David Malboeuf during a court hearing Monday in Flagstaff.

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. A conviction for each of the offenses charged carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a $5,000 fine or both.

The men 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, scorching more than 538,000 acres in eastern Arizona and parts of western New Mexico. The blaze cost more than $79 million to fight before firefighters and monsoon rains eventually put out the flames. It was fully contained July 8.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Schneider said two independent investigations by the U.S. 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. 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 men noted that they are experienced campers who are familiar with the forest. Caleb Malboeuf said they build 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 state.

The trial is set to begin Dec. 13.

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Sept. 19, 2011 10:09 a.m. — Cousins Charged in Arizona Wildfire To Appear in Court

By The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Two cousins accused of accidentally causing the largest wildfire in Arizona history are set to appear in court Monday in Flagstaff.

Caleb and David Malboeuf are scheduled for initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Mark Aspey.

U.S Forest Service investigators say the men were camping in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest when their campfire spread outside its fire ring on May 29. High winds whipped the blaze, scorching more than 538,000 acres in eastern Arizona and parts of western New Mexico.

The men each face five counts, including leaving a fire unattended and failing to maintain control of a fire that damaged a national forest.

A conviction for each of the offenses charged carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a $5,000 fine or both.

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