CIBECUE, Ariz. -- The man charged with starting one of the blazes that has blackened a huge swath of Arizona forest and destroyed hundreds of homes was fascinated by wildfires as a boy and always wanted to be a firefighter, his brother said Monday.
Federal prosecutors have accused Leonard Gregg, 29, a part-time firefighter, of starting the blaze in dry grass because he wanted to earn money as part of a fire crew. The fire later merged with a smaller one to form the largest blaze in the state's history.
Wilson Gregg, the suspect's 41-year-old brother by adoption, told The Associated Press that his younger brother enjoyed watching slurry bombers as a child and would imitate them.
"He put boxes in a line and would pretend he was dropping slurry on those boxes," Gregg, also a part-time firefighter, said as he sat on a fence post outside his home, with white ash drifting down on him.
Gregg acknowledged that his brother had once spread a cooking fire across the family's yard when he was about 4 years old. "You know how little kids are, they like to play with fire," he said.
He said Leonard Gregg was happy when he finally became a part-time firefighter, "That was his dream."
Leonard Gregg was unemployed before the fire, but would give any money he had to his girlfriend and her six children, his brother said. Authorities said he made $8 per hour fighting fires.
Wilson Gregg said he didn't believe his younger brother understood the implications of what he did.
"I think the reason why he did it was because he had a financial crunch on him," the elder Gregg said. "He probably thought the fire wouldn't grow that big."
Other residents of the White Mountain Apache reservation were reluctant to talk about Leonard Gregg or his family. Some said they were concerned about what the family would think if they talked about him, and several neighbors turned a reporter away without talking.
Some said they were angered that one of their own was accused in the fire, which destroyed a large swatch of the ponderosa pines that are a major part of the White Mountain Apaches' economy.
"That was our money back there, that timber," said Travis Duryea, one of Gregg's neighbors. "He's put a lot of us out."
If convicted of both counts of willfully setting fire to timber or underbrush, Gregg could face 10 years in prison and be fined $500,000. A preliminary hearing was set for Wednesday.
Gregg is the second person employed to fight wildfires who is accused of setting blazes during one of the country's most destructive fire seasons.
In Colorado, Terry Barton, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, was charged in June with setting the fire about 40 miles southwest of Denver that has burned about 137,760 acres. She has pleaded innocent.
Gregg hadn't been assigned to a public defender as of Monday.
Meanwhile on Monday, firefighters fanned out from the fire lines south of Forest Lakes, the community most threatened by the 463,000-acre blaze, to remove potential fuel or reinforce firebreaks. The blaze was about 45 percent contained.
"We believe we've really turned the corner on this thing," said fire information officer Tim Buxton.
Fire officials also met with local officials to discuss a timetable for allowing 3,500 to 4,000 evacuees to return to their homes, fire spokesman Art Wirtz said. About 25,000 people already had been allowed to return to Show Low and some nearby towns during the weekend.
Buxton said it would be at least a few more days before the remaining evacuees were allowed to return.
Major fires active Monday in eight Western states had charred nearly 1 million acres, the National Interagency Fire Center said.
In South Dakota's Black Hills, officials began allowing Deadwood residents driven out by a wildfire to return to the historic Wild West town Monday night. The fire, which started Saturday, had forced the evacuation of 10,000 to 15,000 residents and tourists from Deadwood and parts of nearby Lead during the weekend.
The wind-whipped fire in rough terrain had grown to 6,850 acres on Monday and was only 10 percent contained, down from 35 percent on Sunday, officials said. Three houses and nine other buildings had been destroyed.
Near Durango, Colo., some people evacuated from homes were allowed to return home Monday but warned to be ready to leave on quick notice if a 72,500-acre fire flares up again. About 150 people remained evacuated. The fire, which had destroyed 56 homes, was 40 percent contained.
In northeastern Utah, a 1,200-acre fire forced 200 people to flee their homes in the town of Dutch John as flames came within a few miles of Flaming Gorge Dam and its hydroelectric plant.
About 75 miles to the west, another fire prompted Forest Service officials to declare a 220-square-mile area off limits to the public.