On 8 June 2002, a wildfire raged across Colorado. The inferno scorched 138,000 acres of the Pike National Forest in Colorado. It destroyed 133 homes, becoming the worst blaze the state had ever seen. Fire Prevention Technician Terry Barton had raised the alarm after spotting an out-of-control campfire. Only her story didn’t add up…
Terry Barton, 38, was trained to spot the first flickers of a fire in Colorado’s Pike National Forest.
A wisp of smoke, crackling wood, the stench of burning…
She’d worked as a seasonal employee for the US Forest Service for 18 years.
On 8 June 2002 she was patrolling the bone-dry summer forest.
A fire ban had been put in place earlier that month due to severe drought.
At 5pm Barton reported a fire had broken out 35 miles northwest of Colorado Springs.
She said she’d smelled smoke, investigated and found a 20ft illegal campfire. After calling for help, she’d tried to put it out, but the fire roared out of control.
Wind swept the flames across the foothills between Colorado Springs and the suburbs of Denver. People fled their homes.
As hundreds of firefighters battled the inferno, it spewed a choking blanket of smoke over Denver. Ash dropped over the city, sending people to hospitals with breathing difficulties.
Flames roared toward Denver at one mile per hour – at times coming within five miles of residential areas.
On 10 June, Ann Dow, 50, died from an asthma attack on her porch when smoke engulfed her home.
Terry Barton helped battle the flames, gave a newspaper interview.
‘I tried to throw dirt on it but the winds were going crazy and it was just too late,’ she said. ‘I know in my heart there was nothing I could do.’
Yet Barton’s story didn’t add up. She was upwind when she said she first smelled smoke. Investigators found the flames had spread too quickly to have come from a campfire.
Rocks in the firepit had been rearranged to create a funnel for flames to race to the trees. They concluded the fire was set deliberately.
The fire could not have been the size reported by Barton when she allegedly discovered it, an Agriculture Department agent wrote in his report.
On 16 June 2002, Terry Barton was arrested, accused of igniting the blaze and making false statements to federal fire investigators.
Faced with forensic evidence, Barton said it’d been a terrible accident – while on patrol, she’d tried angrily to burn a letter from her estranged husband in a campfire pit but, as she drove away, she turned and saw the fire on the ground, couldn’t put it out.
Barton faced 65 years in jail on federal and state charges if convicted.
Yet she escaped charges for Ann Dow’s death – her death certificate listed the cause of death as ‘acute asthma attack’ from ‘smoke inhalation’, and there’d been no autopsy.
Prosecutors decided it was too difficult to prove Barton’s actions directly caused Ann’s death, as she’d had previous respiratory difficulties.
Still the fire roared on…
It was brought under control six weeks later. By then, it’d burned 138,000 acres of the Pike National Forest, destroyed 133 homes, caused the evacuation of 8,000 people.
Nearly $200million (around £150million) had been spent battling the blaze, with hundreds of millions more in damage.
The blaze became known as the Hayman fire – named after a nearby mining ghost town.
Despite her confession, investigators suspected Barton’s account.
She’d claimed she used one match to light the letter, but three were found at the scene. Her ex said he hadn’t written to her, and no evidence of burned paper was found.
The way the firepit had been rearranged to allow flames to escape didn’t fit.
Investigators believed Barton started the blaze, so she could put it out herself and be hailed a ‘hero’.
In December 2002, Terry Barton, 38, appeared in court on the federal charges.
As part of a plea deal, she admitted two charges – starting a fire on federal lands and lying to investigators
She was jailed for six years.
Later, the State of Colorado also sentenced her to 15 years probation and 1,500 hours of community service on a state charge of arson.
Barton has been ordered to pay $44,545,879 (around £35million) compensation to 1,114 victims – most of which they’re unlikely to see.
Insurance companies failed to sue the US Forest Service, as a judge ruled Barton acted as an angry spouse – not a Government worker – when she started the blaze.
Barton was released from Carswell Women’s Prison in June 2008 and is now nearing the end of her probation.
Young pine trees have only just started to sprout in the scorched ground of the forest.
And the Hayman fire remains forever in the memories of the victims whose lives she ruined in those six terrible weeks.