PHOENIX (AP) - The woman who set one of Arizona's devastating
wildfires said Thursday that she had been lost in the wilderness
for two nights and was desperate to get the attention of a passing
TV helicopter.
"You can't blame me for saving my life," she said.
Valinda Elliott, 31, told The Associated Press that she couldn't
believe it when the signal fire she had started with her lighter
became part of an inferno that destroyed at least 467 homes and
scorched nearly 469,000 acres before being contained.
"If there was some other way I could have gotten that
helicopter's attention, I would have used it," she said, wiping
tears from her face during her first extensive interview since she
was rescued by the helicopter June 20.
"If they want me to apologize for saving my life then tell them
I'm sorry," she said.
The blaze she started merged with the so-called Rodeo fire to
create the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. The combined blaze
burned through several communities last month and forced the
evacuation of about 30,000 people.
Authorities said the Rodeo fire was started by Leonard Gregg, a
part-time firefighter from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation
looking for work. He pleaded innocent to federal charges last week.
Elliott said she has been questioned by the FBI and the Bureau
of Indian Affairs.
Elliott has not been charged with a crime, which has prompted
complaints that Gregg has been singled out by the authorities and
the media. The FBI, BIA and the U.S. attorney's office would not
discuss the investigation.
Describing her ordeal, Elliott said she and her employer,
Ransford Olmsted, became lost on the remote reservation as the two
tried to drive from Phoenix to Young to repair vending machines.
They ran out of gas June 18.
Elliott said she never saw any signs that the surrounding forest
had been closed because of fire danger and said she didn't know she
was on tribal land.
The two slept the first night in Olmsted's truck, with no signs
of anyone around to help and no cell phone signal to call 911. The
next morning, Elliott said she left Olmsted to find a place where
her cell phone might work. She took two cigarettes, a lighter and a
towel.
Elliott said she walked most of the day, and once she realized
she had lost sight of the road, began screaming for help and waving
her towel as helicopters passed overhead.
Olmsted was rescued that day. Elliott said she ended up spending
the second night alone outside, wearing only a tank top, shorts and
flip-flop sandals. She used the towel as a blanket.
She said she drank water from muddy pools and had no food.
Elliott said she began to worry she would never be found and feared
her three children - ages 14, 10 and 9 - would be left alone.
At daybreak, Elliott said she used her lighter to set fire to a
small bush after hearing the TV helicopter, which rescued her a few
minutes later.
Elliott said she couldn't see any flames, only smoke, as she was
flown away and that the news crew told her they had called for
help. Officials have said the crew had reported the fire but that
it was too big to control by the time firefighters arrived.
Olmsted referred calls to his attorney, William J. Curosh, who
said Olmsted wasn't yet ready to talk about the incident.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press