FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Two cousins who admitted starting the largest wildfire in Arizona history were sentenced Wednesday to spend a weekend in jail and perform 200 hours of community service.
Caleb and David Malboeuf also will each be on supervised probation for five years. The Malboeufs were camping in eastern Arizona's Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in May 2011 when their campfire spread outside its rings, sparking the Wallow Fire. The blaze burned more than 538,000 acres, or about 840 square miles, in Arizona and parts of western New Mexico before it was contained.
The cousins pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor charges of building a campfire without clearing flammable material and leaving it unattended.
A tearful David Malboeuf took the blame for lighting the campfire, saying he thought he had taken necessary precautions to put it out but recognized the mistake was in not dousing it with water.
"I remember that I was wrong, whether I have a meeting with a probation officer or not, whether my heartbeat increases with the thought of running for my life or the slow death of the dog I loved. I remember, and I regret," he said.
The Malboeufs have agreed to surrender on Aug. 31 to serve their 48-hour sentence. U.S. Magistrate Mark Aspey recommended that they serve their time in the Coconino County jail in Flagstaff, at their request. The community service must be done at a minimum pace of 10 hours per month. Aspey also lifted a ban that kept the Malboeufs off national forest land.
Aspey said the sentence should send the message that "if you're going to camp in the forest, you bring your 5 gallons of water, you bring your shovel, and by golly, you put that fire out."
Prosecutors say the men offered consistent accounts and have cooperated with authorities. Both told Aspey that they were ready to accept responsibility.
"I've always tried to go camping with one thing in mind — take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but tracks — and we didn't do that, and that breaks my heart," Caleb Malboeuf said. "I really am sorry for what we did. And I just thank the Lord that nobody died."
The prosecution estimated property damage at $5 million. The blaze destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins, and at one point, nearly 10,000 people were forced to evacuate.
Prosecutors had reached out to nearly 60 people who could be entitled to restitution in the case, but none of them testified in court Wednesday on the extent of their losses. Attorneys cited a presentence report in saying that a majority of the potential victims believed that the damage caused was punishment enough for the men who are avid hunters, anglers and campers. A restitution hearing is set for Oct. 15.
The U.S. Forest Service has agreed not to seek repayment of the $79 million it cost to fight the blaze through the criminal case but could initiate a civil action. Prosecutors in Greenlee and Apache counties also have agreed not to file state charges against the Malboeufs.
The Malboeufs have said they believed the campfire was out because they did not see any flames or smoke rising from it hours after it was lit to cook breakfast, and a candy wrapper one of them threw into the fire didn't melt. 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.
They smelled and saw smoke near the campsite on their way back.