Woman Who Started Wildfire Says It Was Symbolic

September 15, 2008

The former U.S. Forest Service employee who started the worst wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history testified she burned the letter blamed for igniting the blaze as a “symbolic gesture” of her failing marriage.

Terry Lynn Barton took the stand in a lawsuit brought by insurance companies that want the federal government to cover about $7 million they paid out in claims from the 2002 Hayman fire.

The companies argued the federal government is at fault because of Barton failed in her responsibility to extinguish the blaze before it spread. Barton was working as a fire spotter for the Forest Service.

Barton pleaded guilty to state and federal arson charges and served six years in prison. She was released in June 2008.

She testified the letter she burned in a campground was from her estranged husband, apologizing and asking to stay with her.

But an attorney for the government said that Barton previously claimed her husband’s letter told her “she was Satan and breaking the family up.”

Since her release from prison, Barton said she and her husband are trying to get back together.

The fire blackened 138,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and forced more than 8,000 people to evacuate. It burned for 17 days.

Barton said igniting the letter was not premeditated.

“I was just emotionally amiss, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “It was a symbolic gesture.”

Barton left the courthouse with her attorney without comment.

In closing arguments, State Farm Insurance attorney Michael Roach said Barton was negligent in her attempt to stop the fire and failed to make sure it was out.

“By her own admission she didn’t even look back. If she had looked back, this whole tragedy would have been avoided,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pharo countered that when Barton burned the letter, she was committing a crime and wasn’t acting in her capacity as a government employee.

Pharo also said the fire spread too fast for her to stop it.

“Barton had no chance of putting this fire out by herself,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel, who is hearing the case without a jury, told both sides to present summaries of the facts by Sept. 22. He said he would rule sometime after that.

Allstate and Hartford Fire Insurance Co. are also plaintiffs in the suit.

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