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Woman Who Set Colorado Wildfire Sentenced

February 22, 2003|From Associated Press

DENVER — A former U.S. Forest Service employee was sentenced to six years in prison Friday for setting the biggest wildfire in Colorado history, a blaze that destroyed more than 130 homes last summer.

"The fact that I hurt people kills me each and every day, because I do love people," Terry Lynn Barton, 39, said in federal court. "So I'd just like to say that I am sorry."

She pleaded guilty in December to federal arson charges and last month to a state arson charge. The state charge could bring up to 12 years in prison when Barton is sentenced again on March 5.

Prosecutors have asked that the federal and state sentences run concurrently.

The 138,000-acre fire southwest of Denver destroyed 133 homes and one business and caused $13 million in damage.

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch rejected the government's request that Barton be ordered to pay $14.7 million to cover firefighting costs and restoration of Pike National Forest. "I'm not going to sentence Ms. Barton to a life in poverty," he said.

Barton, whose job included spotting illegal fires, first told authorities that she smelled smoke and discovered the fire while patrolling a forest June 8.

Later, she told investigators she accidentally started the blaze while burning a letter from her estranged husband. Investigators believe she started the fire deliberately.

"If the case had proceeded to trial, I think there would have been differing theories," U.S. Atty. John Suthers said after the sentencing.

He said expert testimony would have shown that no paper was found inside a fire ring, and the circle of rocks was placed in such a way to allow fire to escape.

The Forest Service fired Barton after her arrest.

Barton's public defender, Rick Williamson, told the judge Friday that his client understands if people aren't ready to forgive her. Williamson said Barton told her probation officer that people have a right to hate her and if it helps them to see her go to prison, that's OK.

State prosecutors are still compiling numbers to determine how much restitution to ask for on the state charge, said Jeanne Smith, district attorney for Teller and El Paso counties.

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