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Feds charge forestry worker with starting fire

Firefighters watch a backburn, designed to help contain the Hayman wildfire.
Firefighters watch a backburn, designed to help contain the Hayman wildfire.  

CASTLE ROCK, Colorado (CNN) -- Federal authorities Sunday arrested a longtime U.S. Forest Service employee for allegedly starting the largest fire in Colorado's history.

Prosecutors said Terry Barton, a 38-year-old Colorado woman, burned in anger a letter from her estranged husband, in violation of a ban on fires in the tinder-dry Pike National Forest. She apparently thought the fire had been extinguished and left it only to find later that it was spreading, they said.

She then tried to suppress the fire but it grew, said Bill Leone, first U.S. district attorney for the District of Colorado.

Barton is charged with setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property and making false statements to federal fire investigators. She faces as many as 10 years in prison and as much as $500,000 in fines.

At the time the fire began, Barton was under orders to patrol for fires in the Hayman area of the national forest, enforcing a fire ban that had been set in May.

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She was arrested Sunday morning without incident and is being held at a criminal justice facility in Colorado Springs.

"It's tough for me to find the words to express myself right now," said Rick Cables, regional forester for the Forest Service, in announcing the arrest.

The fire Barton allegedly started on June 8, dubbed the Hayman fire, has now burned more than 100,000 acres and had earlier threatened Denver's southwestern suburbs. More than 5,400 residents are under a mandatory evacuation order and 10,000 homes are threatened by the flames.

The Hayman fire has destroyed 25 homes, one business, and 13 other structures.

Sunday, more than 2,100 firefighters were battling the Hayman fire, which was 47 percent contained.

It was Barton who first reported the fire, saying she had come across a campfire that had spread. But as the investigation unfolded, forensic evidence led investigators to question her story.

"Her statements were inconsistent with their conclusion that this was a deliberately set fire," said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Taylor. Presented with the evidence, Barton recanted her original statements, he said.

Colleagues shocked

Taylor said the charges facing Barton "involve a willful state of mind. The arson investigators' conclusion was this was a deliberately set arson fire."

Barton had worked as a seasonal employee every summer for 18 or 19 years, and "to my knowledge," had never had prior problems, Cables said.

Last fall, she was hired as a permanent part-timer, working for the Forest Service nine months per year, he said.

Rick Cables, regional forester:
Rick Cables, regional forester: "Forest service people take care of the land and protect the resources, and I'm sure our folks are going to have a tough time with this news."  

Recreation technicians clean campgrounds and provide information about trails and campgrounds to the public.

"I'm shocked and, with a lot of other people, in a state of disbelief," said Cables. "Fire service people take care of the land and protect the resources. I'm sure our folks are going to have tough time with this news."

Barton is scheduled to make an initial appearance Monday before a U.S. magistrate judge in Denver.

Meanwhile, officials expressed concerns about another fire sweeping quickly through an area in the state's southwest near Durango.

Low humidity blamed for fire's quick spread

The Missionary Ridge fire in Colorado's southwestern corner, 15 miles north of Durango, was showing "extreme fire behavior" Sunday.

Bobbie Mixon with the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center said the fire has burned some 23,000 acres. So far, he said, 240 homes have been evacuated and some 1,500 people are on "pre-evacuation standby."

More than 900 firefighters are on the scene, working to save homes and buildings in the area, Mixon said.

An extremely low humidity is partly to blame for the fire's rapid spread. Temperatures in the area are in the mid-80s, said Mixon.

Officials declared the 33,000-acre Trinidad Complex of two fires on the New Mexico state line 100 percent contained Saturday, and most of the threat to populated areas was over for the 12,000-acre Coal Seam fire, about 160 miles west of Denver.

Mixon said the Miracle Fire Complex to the north, near Grand Junction, was now 100 percent contained, and firefighters expect to have complete control of the fire by the end of Sunday.




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