Colorado Wildfire may Have Been Intentionally Set
DENVER - Federal investigators have concluded that the Forest Service employee charged with starting a fire that has burned more than 100,000 acres in central Colorado set the blaze deliberately and lied when she said she had done so accidentally by burning a letter inside a campfire ring, a senior Forest Service official said today.
The official said investigators had found burned underbrush positioned in such a way outside the ring, set up to prevent campfires from spreading beyond a contained area, to suggest that the employee, Terry Lynn Barton, intended to start a fire and that burning the letter might have had nothing to do with the blaze, the largest in Colorado history. The investigators, he said, are not even certain that she burned anything inside the ring.
"They knew immediately that the fire was set," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They found enough material to know that it was more than two sheets of paper burned that caused the fire."
Ms. Barton, a seasonal employee of the Forest Service for 18 years who lives in Florissant, Colo., and is the mother of two teenage girls, is scheduled to appear in Federal District Court on Thursday, when the government will present its case, much of it based on an investigation that points to the underbrush as the point of origin. Prosecutors are expected to argue that there is enough evidence that a crime has been committed and that Ms. Barton is a flight risk who should not be released on bail before a trial.
If the judge agrees, prosecutors will take Ms. Barton before a federal grand jury to seek an indictment.
Ms. Barton's federal public defender, Warren Williamson, declined to discuss any aspect of the case other than to acknowledge the time and place of the hearing and to predict that they could take several days. His client faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $750,000 on federal charges that she set fire to federal lands, caused damage in excess of $1,000 and knowingly misled investigators.
Today, Colorado's attorney general, Ken Salazar, met with the United States attorney for Colorado, John W. Suthers, and prosecutors from four counties affected by the fire to discuss whether state charges should also be filed. A decision is not expected for a few days, Mr. Salazar said.
Investigators have not determined why Ms. Barton would have ignited a fire at a time when a ban against open fires was in effect because of persistent warm and dry weather.
The cause of any large wildfire is routinely investigated by the Forest Service, and Ms. Barton drew the immediate attention of the investigators when she was the first person to summon help after she said she spotted a fire in the Pike National Forest in a routine patrol on June 8.
After interviews on June 10 and 13, according to the criminal complaint, investigators said they found that her explanation of where she was when she said she smelled smoke was inconsistent with wind conditions and other factors.
In a third interview, on June 15, investigators confronted Ms. Barton with the anomalies. She then said she had not discovered a fire at all but had become angry over a letter from her estranged husband, John Barton, and had set it afire in a campfire ring.
Ms. Barton told the investigators that she waited until the flames had extinguished, but after circling back to the campsite discovered a fire growing out of control in grass and pine trees. She said she called for help and tried to extinguish the fire. She was arrested on Sunday.
The Forest Service official said even that version of events made little sense to investigators when compared with evidence they found at the campsite, a conclusion reflected in the complaint, which said "the fire was deliberately set and had been staged to look like an escaped campfire."
The complaint provided no details, but the official said investigators were persuaded by the amount of underbrush placed in a way that appeared that it had been used to set a fire.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the United States attorney for Colorado, said the charges against Ms. Barton, for now, only referred to starting "a fire," wording that avoids the determination whether the fire was a campfire or forest fire.
Mr. Williamson, Ms. Barton's lawyer, would not say where his client was being held, and there was no response to telephone messages left at the Barton home.
A Justice Department official said members of Ms. Barton's family had been interviewed. Neither that official nor the Forest Service one knew whether the investigators had met with her husband to ask if he had actually sent his wife a letter that could have upset her. The couple have been separated about a year.
The blaze, known as the Hayman wildfire, meanwhile, grew again today. Fueled by swirling winds and temperatures in the mid-90's, it reached nearly 120,000 acres as it bore down on Woodland Park, northwest of Colorado Springs. It remains less than half contained.
The fire has forced at least 5,500 people from their homes. At least 25 houses have burned, officials said.