Spokane, Wash. For firefighting crews, it is an inexplicable fact of life: Some of the wildfires that blacken the nation's forests and destroy people's homes are set by colleagues hoping to cash in.
It apparently doesn't happen often. But now that two firefighters have been accused of setting two of the most devastating wildfires in recent memory, arson in the ranks is getting another look.
"It's the fire community's dirtiest little secret," said Timothy Ingalsbee, director of the Western Fire Ecology Center in Eugene, Ore.
In the past decade, there have been an average of 116,000 wildfires per year, 102,000 of them caused by humans, according to federal statistics. Many of the human-caused fires are accidental, but Ingalsbee estimates that about one-quarter more than 25,000 are caused by arson and another 25,000 might be.
Richard Mangan, a retired Forest Service fire administrator in Missoula, Mont., estimated that no more than 10 to 20 wildfires per year are deliberately started by firefighters.
That it happens at all is difficult for many to understand, and it isn't just a rural problem. Last year alone, a volunteer firefighter trainee was sentenced life in prison for setting a fire near Pittsburgh that killed a family of three, and eight volunteer firefighters in Virginia were arrested for allegedly setting fires because they were bored.
Two years ago, a former Forest Service fire safety worker was sentenced to three years in prison for setting fires in the Oregon woods. Authorities said she wanted to earn overtime pay fighting the flames.
Prosecutors say economic motivation is also behind the largest wildfire in Arizona history.
Part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg, a 29-year-old resident of the economically depressed Fort Apache Indian Reservation, allegedly set fire to dry grass last month in hopes of earning $8 an hour as part of a fire crew.
The fire merged with another blaze and raced across more than 465,000 acres, destroying at least 423 homes. Gregg pleaded innocent Wednesday.
In Colorado, Forest Service employee Terry Barton is accused of starting a 137,000-acre fire the largest in state history that destroyed more than 130 homes. She has also pleaded innocent.
Mangan suggested another possible motive for firefighter arsonists.
"It's not economic, but the hero image they want to get," he said.