Person of the Week: Terry Barton

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Barton was granted bail, but is not allowed to go to forested areas

Not since Mrs. O'Leary's cow had its encounter with that lantern has the origin of a fire sparked such keen national interest. Or so many questions: Did veteran Forest Service worker Terry Barton set the Hayman wildfire by accident when her campfire surged out of control? Or did she do it on purpose, counting that her 18 years of experience specializing in fire prevention would allow her to control the blaze?

A grand jury prefers the latter explanation. Barton was indicted Wednesday on arson charges; Colorado authorities say she deliberately started a wildfire southwest of Denver on June 8th. The blaze, the largest in Colorado history, has ravaged 135,000 acres of parched land, destroying 25 houses and driving nearly 8,000 people from their homes.

Barton is charged with willfully setting timber, underbrush and grass on fire; willfully injuring property of the United States; maliciously destroying property owned by the United States; causing injury to a firefighter who broke his arm while battling the flames; and using a fire to commit a felony. She pled not guilty; a conviction could mean 65 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

The news of much of this week and last has been dominated by images of the eastern half of Colorado going up in flames. But the even more compelling story is that of Barton. When the fires began June 8th, the 38-year-old mother of two was first on the scene. She initially told investigators the fires were burning when she arrived; under continued questioning, she broke down and said she had accidentally started the fire when she burned a letter from her estranged husband. Prosecutors say it was no accident; according to them, Barton set the fire deliberately.

No matter which story is correct, she's persona non grata to much of her home state. Monday, a day after her arrests, prosecutors asked a federal court to deny bail, arguing that Barton couldn't stay around because the angry citizens of her community would make things uncomfortable. She was released Thursday on a $600,000 bail on the condition that she stay away from forested areas.

If Barton did deliberately start the fires, the question that everyone wants to know is, well, why would anyone do such a monumentally stupid thing? Investigators say that it's not uncommon for some firefighters to start fires to get attention for their heroism in putting them out. Accident or not, there is no excuse for what Barton did — but there may eventually be an explanation.