Forest Service Employee Charged in Colorado Wildfire
CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — A U.S. Forest Service employee yesterday was charged with starting a fire that has burned more than 100,000 acres and forced thousands to evacuate across four Colorado counties.
Forestry technician Terry Barton, 38, admitted starting the fire while patrolling the Pike National Forest to enforce a fire ban, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Leone.
She was charged with setting fire to timber in the national forest, damaging federal property and making false statements to investigators, Leone said.
Barton said she started burning a letter from her estranged husband within a designated campfire ring, where fires normally would be allowed, and then tried to put out the blaze.
"She attempted to suppress the fire, but it grew," Leone said.
Barton, who lives in Teller County south of Denver, has worked for the Forest Service for about 18 years, first as a part-time seasonal employee and less than a year as a part-time employee year-round.
Joan Spigner, who runs a convenience store in Lake George, said Barton has been a customer for years.
"She was really liked by everybody, a swell person and hard worker for the Forest Service. I don't know what made her set that letter on fire. She should have burned it in her woodstove," Spigner said. "The Forest Service was her life."
Barton had been widely praised last week, although not named, when officials spoke of the Forest Service employee who had come upon an illegal campfire and valiantly tried to put it out.
She apparently gave sheriff's deputies the license-plate number of a van seen leaving the campsite. Officials began to doubt her story after investigators determined she could not have smelled smoke from the position she reported, and after the vehicle turned out to belong to concerned people who had seen the fire and driven over to investigate.
If convicted, Barton could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. She was arrested yesterday; it was not immediately clear whether she had an attorney.
She was scheduled to make an initial court appearance in federal court today.
"I want to begin by saying this is one of the hardest announcements I've had to make in my career," said Rick Cables, regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region for the U.S. Forest Service.
Hayman fire update
As of last night:
Size: 102,895 acres.
Containment: 47 percent.
Evacuations: 5,300 people.
Damage: 25 homes destroyed.
On scene: 2,183 firefighters.
Cause: U.S. Forest Service employee charged with setting fire by illegally burning letter from estranged husband.
Cost: $6.7 million so far.
The Associated Press
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.
"I'm shocked and, with a lot of other people, in a state of disbelief," Cables said. "I'm saddened to say that one of our employees has admitted to starting the Hayman fire."
Jody Penny, 45, out of her Florissant Heights home since Tuesday because of the fire, said she was sickened to learn the person suspected of starting it is from the area.
"We all wanted to believe it was some fool from somewhere else," Penny said. "That it's one of ours makes it real sad."
The Hayman fire, the state's largest ever, has been the nation's highest-priority wildfire for a week and was 47 percent contained yesterday.
About 5,300 residents remain evacuated. Officials say it may take as long as three months to extinguish the blaze, which could cost $50 million to fight.
The fire has burned within 40 miles of Denver city limits since it was started June 8, threatening southwestern suburbs and destroying at least 25 homes. It was one of seven fires burning in the state.
"Hopefully, this fire is going to now stay essentially where it is at," said Bobby Kitchens, a fire-information officer. "We don't expect to see any more significant acreage gains."
Sheriff's deputies escorted some residents to retrieve belongings and assess damage but didn't allow them to stay.
Frustrated residents waited at the command post, trying to learn when they'll be able to return for good.
"It started to get to be a long period because one of the big things is I don't like eating out. I miss cooking at home," said Bob James, 46, who has been out of his home north of Lake George since Tuesday.
Another blaze flared in southwest Colorado and forced the evacuation of more than 330 homes. The most recent had burned more than 26,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest by yesterday.
In addition to the evacuations, residents of 450 homes were told to be ready to leave.
One cabin was destroyed, and fire managers were trying to determine whether others had burned.
More than 900 firefighters battled the blaze, about 10 miles north of Durango.
In California, meanwhile, 200 residents and campers returned home after fleeing a fire that burned 3,500 acres and destroyed five homes Saturday about 30 miles northeast of Bakersfield.
Higher humidity and lower temperatures also helped crews battling fires in northern New Mexico.
The state's largest blaze, which has blackened 92,500 acres on the Philmont Scout Ranch, was 75 percent contained.