USA — Five insurance companies that paid claims stemming from the 2002 Hayman Fire say the federal government should repay them because its crews – including the woman who started the blaze – didn’t put out the fire quickly enough.
In a case scheduled to go to trial today in federal court in Denver, the companies will try to recoup the approximately $7 million paid to area property owners.
Among the witnesses who could take the stand later this week is Terry Barton, the U.S. Forest Service employee convicted of sparking the 137,000-acre fire by burning a letter from her estranged husband.
Barton was released from federal prison in June after having served five years and two months of a six-year sentence.
State Farm Fire & Casualty, Hartford Underwriters Insurance, Property and Casualty Insurance Co. of Hartford, Hartford Fire Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance filed suit in 2006.
They argue that the Forest Service was negligent because it allowed Barton to work alone the day she started the fire, didn’t properly train her to contain the fire once it started and took too long to dispatch firefighters.
They also say Barton, while working in an official capacity, drove away from the fire before she was certain it had been extinguished.
When she returned later, the fire had spread out of control.
Attorneys for the government say Barton wasn’t acting within the scope of her employment when she started the fire, so under federal law the Forest Service is immune from a negligence claim.
“Burning the letter from her estranged husband was purely personal and was not done to further the Forest Service’s interests,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pharo wrote in a court filing.
Pharo also disputes the allegation that the fire response was inappropriate.
He said there could be “enormous” consequences – such as no one volunteering to fight fires – in putting the burden of compensation on the responders.
“Public and social interests require that individuals will be willing to put their lives at risk to fight wildfires, and that they have the discretion to balance multiple factors in determining how best to fight the fires,” he stated.
Barton was ordered to reimburse the Forest Service about $14.6 million.
She also could be ordered to pay the state up to $27.5 million more, though prosecutors acknowledge she will likely be able to pay only a very small portion of her debt.