By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Two cousins accused of starting the largest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona by leaving a campfire unattended last year each pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges on Tuesday in a deal with federal prosecutors.
The massive summer blaze, which raged from late May to early July, destroyed three dozen homes and businesses, forced as many as 10,000 people to flee, and ravaged pristine property in the picturesque White Mountains.
U.S. Senator John McCain ignited a furor when he suggested last June that the so-called Wallow Fire, which swallowed over 840 square miles (2,175 square km) of prime forest land in eastern Arizona and roared into New Mexico, might have been started by illegal immigrants.
Two months later, Caleb Malboeuf, 26, and David Malboeuf, 25, cousins from southern Arizona, were charged with starting the blaze in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest by leaving a campfire unwatched while they went on a hike.
More than $83 million was spent fighting the fire before it was finally contained on July 8.
On Tuesday, the pair entered guilty pleas before a federal magistrate in Flagstaff to two misdemeanor counts each of leaving an unattended fire and failing to remove all flammable material around the campfire.
"This was clearly a situation where they thought the fire was out and they left the area," defense lawyer David Derickson, representing Caleb Malboeuf, told Reuters. "It's an unfortunate incident, but you have to move on."
Sentencing was set for June 20. The men each face up to a year in jail and $10,000 in fines. The five misdemeanor counts to which they originally pleaded not guilty carried a maximum penalty of 30 months in jail and fines of $25,000 each.
David Malboeuf's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Investigators said the Malboeufs had left their campfire smoldering and that high winds spread hot embers outside the containment ring after they left the site.
The pair attempted to return to the area after they noticed smoke, but the intensity of the blaze forced them to retreat, according to court documents.
The cousins said they thought the campfire had been extinguished before they left, and that a candy wrapper tossed into the fire ring did not melt, documents state.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)