Ex-Wildland Firefighter Gets 2 Years in Prison for Arson

The former commander of an elite wildland firefighting team who admitted setting two forest fires was sentenced Monday to two years in federal prison.

Van Bateman, who pleaded guilty in October to setting the small fires in the Coconino National Forest, had faced up to five years in prison for setting timber on fire without authorization.

Besides the prison term, U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt fined Bateman $5,000 and ordered him to pay $10,000 in restitution to the government. He was ordered to surrender within 45 days to begin serving his sentence.

Arson and two other charges were dropped under a plea agreement.

Bateman told the judge that he accepted responsibility for not following procedures for a prescribed burn. He said there was no malicious intent, reiterating that he lit the fires only to protect the forest and as part of his job.

A statement from the U.S. attorney's office called the actions "reckless and dangerous" and said the facts do not support statements by Bateman that such actions were common.

One fire Bateman set burned an area the size of a small patio; the other charred about 21 acres.

Bateman, 57, spent more than three decades as a wildland firefighter and fire manager. He was working as fire management officer for the Mogollon Ranger District when he set the fires, and he was dismissed from that job.

He earlier headed one of the nation's top wildfire incident management teams. He and his team also assisted in recovery operations in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks.