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A Forestry Career Goes Up in Smoke

Wildfire: The Forest Service ranger accused of sparking flames was known for her love of nature. She now faces up to 20 years in prison.

June 18, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Terry Barton was living her life's dream, working for the Forest Service and spending her days among her beloved trees. That dream shattered, along with the property and lives of thousands of people across Colorado, when marital disquiet led Barton to put a match to a letter from her estranged husband, setting off the largest wildfire in state history.

Barton, an 18-year veteran of the Forest Service, was not in her green ranger's uniform but in green overalls and handcuffs during an appearance in federal court here Monday. Officials said she admitted starting the 103,000-acre Hayman fire, which is still burning across four counties.

Barton moved near Florissant, a small community about 100 miles south of Denver, from Dunlap, Calif., where she grew up. Friends and neighbors in both states tell stories of Barton's good deeds and kindness. But federal prosecutors asked the judge on Monday to deny bail in part because of the public anger directed at Barton for starting the fire, which has forced the evacuation of 6,000 residents and destroyed 25 homes.

"She would return to a community in which there is considerable hostility toward her, which adds to the possibility of her being a flight risk," said U.S. Atty. John W. Suthers.

Federal magistrate Michael Watanabe ordered Barton to remain in custody until a bond hearing Thursday.

Barton is charged with three criminal counts: setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property in excess of $1,000 and making false statements to investigators. If convicted on all charges, she faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Before the strange unraveling of her story, Barton was hailed as a hero for having first reported the blaze at a campsite on June 8 while on patrol enforcing a ban on open fires.

But two days after the fire started in Pike National Forest, investigators began to doubt her version of events. According to the arrest affidavit, it became clear that Burton could not have smelled smoke from the distance she gave officers and that the fire spread too quickly to have come from a campfire.

Confronted by Forest Service special agents on Saturday, Barton confessed, prosecutors said, and told her story in writing and on videotape.

Barton, 38, was described by acquaintances Monday as someone who grew up in love with the forest. She and her older sister Carla were raised in Dunlap, a small down-on-its-heels rural community in the oak tree-spotted foothills near Fresno. Barton and her husband, John, have known each other since attending Dunlap Elementary School. Even then, friends said, all Barton wanted to do was be out of doors, around animals and in the woods.

Local storeowners Jordan and Linda Judd have known Barton all her life, back when she was little Terry Lynn Haddock climbing trees.

"She is a very nice person from a very nice family," Jordan Judd said.

Her parents, Bill and Wanda Sue Haddock, live in a modest home in Dunlap. Wanda Sue Haddock spoke briefly to a reporter Monday but declined to be interviewed. Bill Haddock was the town's most accomplished freelance mechanic before being disabled in an auto accident.

Neighbors in Dunlap on Monday said they didn't recognize Barton's name from the news and said any criminal behavior was out of character for her.

"Her husband must have made her horribly upset," said a longtime neighbor who asked not to be identified. "I can't imagine the Terry I know would do this deliberately."

Barton parlayed her love of the outdoors into various part-time jobs with the Forest Service and began working at Sequoia National Forest in 1991, where her job was planting trees.

The Bartons moved to Colorado six years ago, neighbors said, to give Terry a chance at a better job with the Forest Service. John Barton worked as a carpenter. The couple have two teenage daughters.

Last fall Terry Barton was hired as a permanent part-time worker, working nine months of the year, earning about $1,500 a month. Her duties included answering questions from the public and policing campgrounds. Much of this spring she has been responsible for enforcing the state's ban on open fires.

A friend said the amount of time Barton spent on her job caused friction in the marriage.

"She loved her job, loved it," said Joe Burlingame, a friend from California. "We think the job had something to do with the problems she and her husband were having. This could only have happened if she was under duress. There was no intent [to set the fire]."

The couple appear to have had problems for some time and John Barton moved out of the house a year ago, friends said. The stress associated with the split was taking its toll on Terry Barton, they said.

"In the midst of emotional turmoil she made a bad decision," said Randy McKinley, pastor at Mountain Community Church, where the Bartons were sometime congregants. He said residents came into the church to talk Monday.

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