FLORISSANT, Colo. – Just last week, Terry Barton described how she was first at the scene of an out-of-control campfire that quickly engulfed everything around it.
The U.S. Forest Service officer, who was patrolling a fire ban in the Pike National Forest, said she frantically tried to extinguish the blaze, but had no luck.
"I tried to throw dirt on it, but the winds were going crazy, and it was just too late," Barton, 38, told The Gazette of Colorado Springs on Thursday. "I think I know in my heart that there was nothing I could do."
Three days later, Barton was identified as the culprit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Leone said Sunday that Barton admitted burning a letter from her estranged husband at a campfire site in forest — igniting a blaze that burned within about 10 miles of the southwest fringe of the Denver area at one point.
Barton appeared in federal court in handcuffs Monday in Denver and was ordered held without bail pending a preliminary hearing. Her voice quavered as she told a magistrate that she understood she could be sentenced to prison.
People who know Barton said the 18-year U.S. Forest Service veteran had dedicated her life to working in the wilderness.
"The Forest Service was her life. She worked really hard," said Joan Spigner, who runs a convenience store that Barton has frequented for years. "She came in really tired," Spigner added.
Others — especially those whose neighborhoods have been evacuated — were shocked that someone from the Forest Service had started the blaze.
"We all wanted to believe it was some fool from somewhere else. You can understand that, we don't want to believe it. That it's one of ours makes it real sad," said Jody Penny, 45, who was evacuated from Florissant Heights last week.
Barton's husband, John, said he was not living at home with Terry and their two teenage daughters, but had visited last week to be with the girls while Terry worked on the fire.
John Barton told The Denver Post his wife has been upset, but has not told him much.
"She's been staying late. Some nights, she hasn't come home," he said Sunday.
More than 200 people packed into a school gym in Lake George on Sunday evening for an update on the fire that had burned more than 100,000 acres and forced 5,400 people from their homes.
Park County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Anthony announced there had been arrest in fire and the crowd cheered. But when Joe Meade, acting superintendent of the Pike and San Isabel national forests announced who was arrested, the crowd suddenly grew quiet.
"She didn't go out there and make a fire to burn down our forest," said Jody Penny, 45, doesn't know Barton but had her home evacuated last week. "She went up there to burn up a letter and be real down."
Barton was arrested on federal charges of setting fire to timber in the national forest, damaging federal property and making false statements to investigators.
If convicted of all charges she could be sentenced to a total of up to 20 years in prison and be fined $250,000.