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Forest worker indicted for starting wildfire

Friend calls her 'awesome girl'

Terry Barton is seen here on June 9, near Lake George, Colorado, amid efforts to fight the Hayman fire she's accused of starting.
Terry Barton is seen here on June 9, near Lake George, Colorado, amid efforts to fight the Hayman fire she's accused of starting.  

DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- U.S. Forest Service worker Terry Lynn Barton was indicted Wednesday on charges of willfully and maliciously destroying U.S. property and causing personal injury by setting a blaze that has grown into a wildfire of historic proportions.

A federal grand jury charged Barton, 38, on four felony counts that, upon conviction, could result in a maximum prison term of 75 years and fines totaling $1 million.

State officials said they will decide by Thursday whether to file state charges against Barton, who admitted starting the blaze but said it happened by accident June 8 when -- acting in anger -- she burned a letter from her estranged husband. Evidence made public Wednesday cast doubt on her account.

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Federal authorities said earlier Wednesday that Barton "deliberately" staged a scene in the Pike National Forest -- creating what appeared to be an abandoned campfire -- that has become the worst wildfire in Colorado history. However, they say they don't know why.

"That's the million-dollar question," said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Colorado.

Barton told investigators that while she was on patrol, she burned a letter from her estranged husband in an abandoned campfire ring. That act was in violation of a ban on fires. Barton said she thought the fire had been extinguished and left, only to find later that it was spreading.

In an affidavit from the U.S. attorney's office supporting the criminal complaint against Barton, a U.S. Forest Service investigator conducting crime scene analysis states that he believes the scene was staged to appear as though a campfire got out of control.

"She was patrolling the forest enforcing the no-fire ban. She got out of her government vehicle with the purpose or the intent of starting a fire," Dorschner said.

Dorschner said the investigation is "ongoing as officials consider a number of theories" about why the fire was started.

In a Wednesday news conference from Idaho, Barton family friend Connie Work called Barton "an awesome girl," and supported her account of how the blaze started.

"It was never her intent to do what has happened ... situations sometime just get out of control," Work said. "Once the fire started she went out and did her best, almost killing herself, to go out and try to put the fire out herself."

Work acknowledged Barton did not admit to the fire immediately, but said that may have been motivated, at least partly, by fear of losing her job. Barton is the sole support of two teenaged daughters, Work said.

Barton's mother Sue Haddock sat in a chair behind Work, wiping away tears.

Haddock did not formally address the group, but said, "[Terry's] too sweet. She wouldn't have done it on purpose ... she loved that job."

Barton faces a detention hearing Thursday before a federal magistrate. Federal authorities do not want bond imposed because they say she's a flight risk.

Prosecutors say they believe Barton may flee because of the severity of the charges she faces and because if she is released on bond and returns to her community -- Teller County -- she would face hostility.


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