- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

DENVER The forester accused of setting the largest fire in Colorado history pleaded not guilty yesterday.

A federal judge set bail at $600,000 for Terry Barton, the Forest Service employee accused of setting the so-called "Hayman" fire, and ordered her not to leave the state or enter a forest.

Mrs. Barton, 38, dabbed at her eyes with tissue during the hearing yesterday as investigators accused her of deliberately setting fire to the woods. Mrs. Barton contends that she accidentally ignited the fire as she burned a letter from her estranged husband.

U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Brenda Schultz testified that it appeared Mrs. Barton had moved the rocks to allow the flames to leap from the campfire ring into nearby brush.

The agent also said Mrs. Barton's husband told investigators that he never sent a letter to his wife, and that the scene provided no evidence of burned paper.

But Mrs. Barton found support in the testimony of friends and co-workers who called her a dedicated forest technician whose top priority was the protection of the forest.

Her supervisor, Forest Service Ranger Sara Mayben, called Mrs. Barton "one of my most trusted employees."

"I don't think I was angry at her. I think I was just more shocked and saddened," Miss Mayben said.

A federal grand jury indicted the 18-year Forest Service veteran Wednesday on four counts: setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property, injuring a firefighter and using fire to commit a felony.

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 65 years and a $1 million fine.

The blaze, known as the Hayman fire, remained at 136,000 acres yesterday as firefighters took advantage of the cooler, rainy weather and favorable winds for a 48-hour offensive. Crews planned to work through the night to reinforce the fire lines ringing parts of the blaze. As of last night, the fire was still 40 percent contained.

"We're going in for a direct attack today, which means we're not reacting to it, we're going straight at it," Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.

Though the largest of the Colorado fires, the Hayman fire was no longer the federal government's top priority. That distinction belongs to the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango, which reached 54,000 acres yesterday after growing almost 10,000 acres on Wednesday under hot, dry conditions.

The Durango fire was 25 percent contained yesterday. A third fire, which began Wednesday in the Rio Grande National Forest, spread to 6,000 acres and destroyed eight homes.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman toured the state's fire-devastated regions yesterday, a day after President Bush declared Colorado a federal disaster area.

Dry, hot conditions are fueling one of the worst Western fire seasons in memory, with firefighters also battling major blazes in Arizona, California and Nevada. Wildfires have scorched 1.84 million acres so far this year more than twice the 10-year average of 888,000 acres.

In Arizona, the so-called "Rodeo" fire, burning about 110 miles northeast of Phoenix, forced the evacuations of 4,000 residents.

The blaze yesterday roared to 60,000 acres and raced through the hastily abandoned vacation town of Pinedale. Firefighters were chased off the line by flames that authorities estimated at 2,000 degrees, leaving the fire uncontained last night.

"This is a monster," said Jim Paxon, a U.S. Forest Service fire-information officer.

"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature right now. There's not a whole lot we can do with it," said Larry Humphrey, the incident fire commander.

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