DENVER – U.S. Forest Service employee Terry Barton pleaded innocent Thursday to charges she set the biggest wildfire in Colorado history.
Barton, 38, was dry-eyed as she entered the plea. But after a hearing got under way on whether to allow her release on bail, she wiped away tears and reached for a tissue as witnesses described discovering the fire.
A federal grand jury Wednesday charged the 18-year Forest Service veteran with setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property, injuring a firefighter and using fire to commit a felony.
The indictment came after prosecutors expressed doubt about Barton's story that she accidentally started the fire while burning a letter from her estranged husband. Investigators contend the fire was staged to look like an escaped campfire.
During the hearing, Forest Service special agent Brenda Schultz said it appeared Barton had moved rocks from a campfire to allow the fire to escape and ignite surrounding brush.
Schultz said Barton's husband told investigators he never wrote her a letter. Prosecutors also said there was no evidence of burned paper at the scene.
Barton's boss, Forest Service ranger Sara Mayben, described what happened when Barton allegedly told her and several other co-workers that she had started the fire:
"I think her words were, 'You're going to be mad at me.' I don't think I was mad at her, I think I was just more shocked and saddened," Mayben said.
If convicted of all counts, Barton could get up to 65 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
The arrest of the forestry technician over the weekend stunned colleagues and angered residents who have been evacuated. Since the fire began June 8, it has grown to 136,000 acres, destroyed 25 homes and forced the evacuation of 8,900 people.
Friends and relatives described Barton as a dedicated and tireless worker, a well-liked person who loves the outdoors.
"I can't see her doing that," neighbor Richard Grenfell said from his Florissant home. "She loved the forest so much, why would she want to destroy it?"
The indictment alleges Barton "willfully and without authority set on fire timber, underbrush, grass and other inflammable material."
Investigators said Barton initially told them she was patrolling the Pike National Forest about 40 miles southwest of Denver when she smelled smoke and discovered the fire. After she was confronted with contradictory evidence, Barton told investigators she was burning a letter in a campfire ring and the fire spread out of control.