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THE NATION

Forestry Worker Charged in Colorado Fire

Arrest: The woman has admitted to accidentally starting the blaze, say officials. She reportedly had burned a letter from her estranged husband.

June 17, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — A U.S. Forest Service employee on Sunday was charged with starting a fire that has burned more than 103,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 homes across four Colorado counties.

Recreation technician Terry Lynn Barton, 38, admitted that she started a campfire while patrolling Pike National Forest to enforce a fire ban, said Bill Leone of the U.S. attorney's office here. Authorities said Barton was burning a letter from her estranged husband in a rock campfire ring but was unable to suppress the flames.

Barton was charged with setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property in excess of $100,000 and making false statements to investigators. If convicted, she could be sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison and fined as much as $250,000.

Barton--who lives in Teller County south of Denver--has worked seasonally for the Forest Service for 18 or 19 years, officials said. She was arrested Sunday morning and is scheduled to make an appearance in federal court today.

The arrest came as a shock in a state where Forest Service employees and firefighters have been hailed as heroes for their efforts to save homes and property in what is becoming the worst fire season in state history. The Hayman fire, which started June 8, is the largest ever in Colorado.

Residents in rural communities and small mountain towns that have been threatened by fire in the last two months still display handmade signs: "Thank You Firefighters."

Rick Cables, the regional forest chief for the Forest Service, made the arrest announcement Sunday at the Hayman fire operation center, flanked by the assistant U.S. attorney and Gov. Bill Owens.

"I want to begin by saying, this is one of the hardest announcements I've had to make in my career," Cables said. "I'm shocked and, with a lot of other people, in a state of disbelief. I'm saddened to say that one of our employees admitted to starting the Hayman fire."

Barton had been widely praised last week--although she was not named--when officials spoke of the Forest Service employee who had come upon an illegal campfire and valiantly attempted to put it out.

She apparently gave sheriff's deputies the license plate number of a van that was seen leaving the campsite. The vehicle turned out to belong to concerned citizens who had spotted the fire and driven over to investigate.

The Hayman fire has been the nation's highest-priority wildfire for a week now and was 47% contained Sunday. More than 6,000 residents remain evacuated. Officials say it may take up to three months to extinguish the blaze, which could cost $50 million to fight.

It is one of seven major fires raging in the state. The fire season officially began Saturday.

Officials were concerned that a stubborn fire near Durango in southwest Colorado would force more evacuations. The 20,000-acre fire in San Juan National Forest consumed two homes on Sunday and forced the evacuation of two subdivisions about 10 miles north of Durango. Residents of 450 other homes were told to prepare to leave.

The blaze was 25% contained Sunday, but high winds and dry weather made for difficult firefighting conditions.

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