FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Two cousins who admitted starting the largest wildfire in state history each are facing up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine when they are sentenced Wednesday in federal court.
Caleb and David Malboeuf 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 in Arizona and parts of western New Mexico before it was fully contained.
The cousins pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor charges of building a campfire without clearing flammable material and leaving it unattended. While the presentence report recommends probation, community service, restitution and a 30-day jail sentence, defense attorneys are expected to argue for no jail time.
"While some sanction may be required, let the sting be in the amount of community service so that he can truly demonstrate his remorse and make objective and constructive restitution to the community," Caleb Malboeuf's attorney, David Derickson, wrote in court documents.
The defense attorneys have submitted dozens of character letters to U.S. Magistrate Mark Aspey, painting the men as stewards of the land who want to work on erosion control and forest thinning projects. They have been banned from national forest land, except to aid in the investigation of the fire.
The fire destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins, and at one point, nearly 10,000 people were forced to evacuate.
Prosecutors have been reaching out to nearly 60 victims that could be could be entitled to restitution in the case. One of the victims has suggested forming a victims' panel so that residents can confront the Malboeufs on their actions, court documents show.
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.
Prosecutors say the men offered consistent accounts and have cooperated with authorities.
The Malboeufs told Aspey earlier this year that 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 believed that there was no need to douse the fire with water because they believed the fire to be out," said David Malboeuf's attorney, Stephen Glazer. "They were wrong in their belief."
The Malboeufs smelled and saw smoke near the campsite on their way back from the hike.