Former Fire Official Accused of Setting Forest Blazes

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The former commander of an elite wildfire team that battled the largest blaze in Arizona history and aided in recovery efforts at the World Trade Center is accused of starting two fires last year, federal prosecutors said.

Van Bateman, 55, was indicted Wednesday for allegedly setting the fires in the Coconino National Forest in 2004. He faces two federal counts of setting timber afire and two counts of arson on public lands. The first charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years, while arson is punishable by up to 20 years, prosecutors said Thursday.

Bateman was a Type I incident commander, the head of a wildfire management crew that is called in for the biggest and most severe wildfires. His four-year term in that position expired in 2004 and he became leader of a slightly lower level team until he was indicted and put on paid leave, according to Forest Service officials.

Bateman is accused of setting a tenth-of-an-acre (0.04 hectare) fire on May 8, 2004, and a 21-acre 8.4-hectare) fire on June 23, 2004.

A message left at his home was not immediately returned Thursday.

Patrick Schneider, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on the possible motive or other aspects of the case.

Bateman, a 34-year veteran, commanded a Forest Service team sent to the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He has fought wildfires across the West, including leading one of four elite teams that managed crews that battled the largest wildfire Arizona has seen. That blaze covered 469,000 acres in 2002, destroyed 491 homes and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people in eastern Arizona.

Bateman is not the first firefighter to be accused of starting a wildfire in Arizona. In 2002, part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg was accused of starting part of a blaze that destroyed hundreds of homes in northeast Arizona. Gregg pleaded guilty in 2004 to two counts of intentionally setting a fire and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.