USA — If you know the story of the Hayman fire which 10 years ago grew so large it dropped ash like plump snowflakes on downtown Denver you probably know this: Forest Service worker Terry Lynn Barton admitted to accidentally starting the blaze when, in a moment of emotional distress, she lit a letter from her estranged husband in a remote campfire ring near Lake George. It is the story in her signed confession of the events of June 8, 2002. It is the story that appears in her plea agreements to both state and federal criminal charges. It is the story that two federal judges have accepted in official rulings. And it is a story that gives the already memorable tale of the Hayman fire a particularly operatic touch that of a woman whose anguish was so great it burned down a forest.
But what if you also knew that investigators found no evidence of paper inside the campfire ring? Or that the ring itself appeared to have been tampered with? Or that Barton has told multiple versions of when she received the letter, what it said, and whether she even read it? Or that the woman who investigated her, the wildfire expert who gathered evidence against her, and the man who prosecuted her all believe that Barton has never told the truth that they believe there was no letter?
Ten years after the biggest fire in the state’s worst fire season which famously prompted then-Gov. Bill Owens to declare, “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning” not one important detail of Barton’s account of the fire’s beginnings is uncontested.
Ten years after, it is still unclear exactly how the Hayman fire started. Or why.
Barton served five lonely years in prison for sparking the blaze and remains on probation. She owes tens of millions of dollars in restitution.
Even after she was freed, she found herself confronted with the essential question about the day she ignited a wildfire that consumed 133 homes.
Under the fluorescent lighting of a federal courtroom in September 2008, a lawyer fixed his gaze on Barton, who had been called as a witness in a civil suit seeking to hold the U.S. Forest Service liable for the fire.
His query: “One of the questions that’s been raised during the course of this case is whether there really was a letter. So let me just ask you: There was a letter from John Barton, wasn’t there, and that’s what you burned in the campfire ring?”
“Yes, sir,” Barton replied, “there was.”
Today, the question is: Does it matter if there wasn’t?
On Saturday, June 8, 2002, I left my home and my husband handed me a letter. I wasn’t speaking with him and we’re going through a divorce. He told me he hadburned the divorce papers, earlier in the week when he was in Arkansas. He was suppose to sign the papers. I left for work at 0800 and took the letter with me. The letter was very upsetting to me.
—From Terry Barton’s signed confession
By the time firefighters gained control of the Hayman fire more than one month after it began it had charred 137,760 acres in Park, Teller, Jefferson and Douglas counties, a footprint nearly twice as large as Colorado’s second-biggest fire. On one day alone, it ran 19 miles. It put up a smoke plume so massive that it created its own weather.
Barton was the first to report the fire, originally telling fellow rangers she was out on patrol when she smelled smoke, investigated, and came upon a runaway campfire.
But almost immediately, investigators questioned her story. A week after the fire started, during an interview with detectives in the forest clearing where it began, Barton buckled under questioning, admitted to starting the fire and signed a confession.
In that statement, Barton said her husband gave her the letter as she left the house for work the morning of the fire. When she saw the fire ring while on patrol, she said, she had an idea.
“I decided that I wanted to get rid of the letter,” Barton wrote in her statement. “I stopped in the road and thought I’m going to get rid of this thing right now. “
Investigators, though, quickly developed doubts about her new story.
The morning after Barton confessed, Forest Service agent Luke Konantz and another investigator went to Barton’s home in Florissant to interview John Barton, her estranged husband. They found him on the porch, where he said he spent the night because his wife didn’t want him in the house.
“He denied that he gave her a letter,” Konantz testified in 2008. “And he said he was sleeping on the porch when she would have left for work and didn’t see her.”
What’s more, Konantz said he later found out that Barton spent the night before the fire at a friend’s house and didn’t come home before going to work.
When Barton was asked about this discrepancy during the 2008 civil trial, she said her memory was unclear and that she believed she received the letter a day or two before the fire. A 2004 story in the Colorado Springs Gazette, based on an interview with Barton, described the letter as being something her husband had written to her months before the fire.
Barton also gave conflicting accounts of what the letter said. In her confession, she said she didn’t read the letter before igniting it. The 2004 article said the letter detailed her and her husband’s separation agreement.
In her 2008 testimony, Barton said she did read the letter and that her husband apologized to her in it and said he wanted to work things out.
John Barton also changed his story several months after his first interview with authorities in 2002 and said he did give Terry a letter.
Investigators weren’t swayed by the shifting accounts.
“She said so many things that were untrue in that, that were inconsistent with what I found in the fire,” Kim Jones, one of the case’s lead Forest Service investigators, testified during the 2008 civil trial.
Meanwhile, Forest Service agent Paul Steensland, an expert in wildfire investigations who worked on the Hayman case, had a question central to the confession: If Terry Barton burned a letter, where was the paper?
Investigators found no remnants of a letter when examining the campfire ring. Ash from the ring that was sent to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lab turned up no microscopic specks of paper.
It is possible that paper fragments could have blown away in the wind the contents of the ring weren’t taken into evidence until several days after the start of the fire. But a pile of fine ash had remained inside the ring, and Steensland knew from investigating hundreds of fires that paper is surprisingly resilient. In a test in his own California backyard in 2002, bits of burned paper remained present in a fire ring more than a month after being lit, having survived wind, rain and sun.
Other elements of Barton’s story bugged Steensland, too. Investigators found three matches stacked close together inside the fire ring, but Barton had initially claimed she used only one to light the letter. Barton later handed agents a matchbook with three matches missing that she said the match she used came from. But ATF experts concluded the matches in the fire ring didn’t come from that matchbook.
And what about this ring, Steensland wondered? It had grass growing inside it. Though it didn’t look like anyone had camped in the area in a while there was no trash nearby, for instance the ring appeared to have been altered recently.
One large rock seemed to have been deliberately propped up on a smaller stone, creating an opening in the ring that would allow the flames to escape. Agents could even see the indentations in the dirt where the rocks had previously been located.
The day the fire started was windy gusts to 35 mph near Lake George and hot. The humidity was 8 percent. Grasses, shrubs and trees were brittle dry. A flaming letter dropped into the ring would have likely ignited the grass inside immediately, Steensland thought.
It all led Steensland to one conclusion: There was no letter, and this was no accident. The Hayman fire was set intentionally.
“That’s certainly what I believe,” Steensland said in a recent interview with The Denver Post. “But is that the truth? I don’t know.
“It just did not make sense she would have gone out to that campfire ring to burn anything.”
I wasn’t thinking about the fire ban. I didn’t want to start a fire. I thought the campfire ring was a good place to burn the letter. I took it to the campfire ring with matches I had already taken from my purse. I crumbled up the letter and knelt down and put it in the campfire ring and lit it with a match. I watched it till it burned up completely. I thought it was out.
From Terry Barton’s signed confession
Prosecutors were well aware of these doubts when they assembled the criminal case against Barton. After being arrested on June 16, 2002, Barton was charged with the federal crime of “timber set afire” among other counts.
Today, John Suthers is Colorado’s attorney general. In 2002, he was the U.S. attorney for Colorado, the state’s top federal prosecutor. He told The Post recently that his office was prepared to argue that Barton was a troubled arsonist. Suthers still believes Barton likely set the fire to be a hero.
“We never believed that story,” Suthers said.
“If the case had gone to trial,” he said, “our case would have been that she set the fire with the notion that she … would put it out and save the forest.”
But as the case progressed and the sides began talking about a plea deal, it became clear that prosecutors gained no added benefit from pursuing that narrative, Suthers said. For one, both stories the one with the letter and the one without led to convictions for the same thing because, no matter which was true, Barton intentionally struck a match. The punishment wouldn’t have been any greater. And disproving the existence of a letter would have been difficult, he said.
“Her version of events didn’t make a whole lot of difference because she still deliberately set the fire,” Suthers said. “It just went to motive.”
On Dec. 6, 2002, prosecutors and Barton signed a plea agreement that contained the story about the letter. Now codified in a government-approved document, the story of the letter gained added legitimacy.
By accepting the plea agreement, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch, who presided over the federal criminal case, gave his blessing to that version of the Hayman story. And, when the matter came up in the 2008 civil trial, the attorneys for the plaintiffs mostly insurance companies trying to collect damages from the Forest Service used the plea deal to defend Barton’s story. That version, they felt, cast greater doubt on the Forest Service’s firefighting efforts.
“You know the government isn’t in the business of sending people to prison on the basis of a false confession, don’t you?” attorney Michael Roche asked Steensland.
“I would hope they don’t,” Steens land responded.
Because of a sworn plea endorsing the letter story, U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel, who oversaw the civil case, said he felt constrained to adopt that version of events.
“The starting point has to be that there was a letter,” Daniel said at the conclusion of the civil trial. “She was emotionally distraught, and, while she was on duty, she went to this campfire site, lit the letter and then we take it from there.”
In the end, the letter and the questions about it made no difference in the civil trial, as Daniel found the Forest Service was not liable for the Hayman fire.
There was another reason the story of the letter found acceptance: By all accounts, Terry Barton was beloved. She regularly cooked dinner for empty-pocketed seasonal Forest Service workers, even though she was broke herself. A friend described her as so kindhearted that she had a catch-and-release policy with house mice. And when an elderly husband and wife in Lake George, who were both dying of cancer, wanted to take a trip to Kansas to visit family, Barton was the one person in the community who stepped forward to drive them. More than 40 people wrote letters in support of her to the court before her sentencing on state criminal charges. They included family and friends, but also new co-workers at the King Soopers where she had taken a job while out on bond and old Forest Service colleagues who knew intimately the damage the Hayman fire caused. To them, the fire could only have been a mistake, if it was set by the Terry they knew.
“Terry would never intentionally harm anyone or their property,” one Forest Service co-worker wrote.
They also wrote of the strain Barton’s troubled marriage had placed on her how her husband struggled with alcohol addiction and would disappear for months at a time, leaving her alone to care for their two daughters. They wrote about how she worked overtime to make ends meet.
She was doing the best she could, they said.
Matsch received a similar deluge of letters in the federal case, and he said on the bench during Barton’s sentencing hearing that those letters caused him to cast aside the doubts he had about her confession. He pointed to one in particular, written by the co-worker and friend Barton spent the night with prior to the fire.
“I truly believe Terry caused the Hayman fire during a moment of pure distress and frustration,” Stephanie Howard wrote. “Most of us have had moments like these when reason and clarity are overshadowed by despair.”
“I believe that,” Matsch said, “from all of the information that I have received, to be an accurate statement.”
I never meant for this to happen, this was an emotional act. When I turned around and seen the fire, I knew it was my fault and I wanted to put it out. I became even more fearful as the fire grew and it became harder to come forward. I was fearful about how I could support my daughters, without a job as a single mother.
From Terry Barton’s signed confession
There’s no marker to denote the site where the Hayman fire started, in a clearing 1.1 miles up Forest Road 290 about 6 miles northwest of Lake George. There isn’t even a campfire ring anymore.
Several days after the fire began, investigators boxed up its rocks and placed them into evidence.
What there is, though, is a boneyard of pine trees. Charcoaled trunks and limbs some cut down, some fallen on their own clutter the meadow. The trees that remain standing have slithering black streaks up their bodies.
For 215 square miles to the north and east, it goes on like this. Denuded land. Matchstick trees. Black relics of a disaster already 10 years past but so freshly visible.
Nobody not Barton’s supporters, not even her most persistent doubters believes Terry Barton ever wanted her match strike to become what the Hayman fire was.
“In my heart of hearts, I really don’t believe she intended to light the largest fire in Colorado history,” Steens land said.
Today, Barton is 48 and in year 10 of a 15-year probation sentence for her state criminal charges. Her federal sentence ended last year, when her three-year term of post-prison supervised release expired. She left the federal women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 2, 2008 1,897 days after she entered on March 24, 2003.
She still must pay restitution, though. In her state case, alone, she owes $44,545,879.01. The restitution order lists 1,114 victims to be compensated.
After finding a job as a personal trainer, Barton has been making monthly payments of $75, according to court records. Her account now holds $3,089. At that rate, it will take 49,492 more years to pay off her debt. In her federal case, she owes another $14,671,510.
Barton must also perform 100 hours of community service work a year for her state sentence. She did about a year of that service work on forest restoration projects in the Hayman burn area. Supervisors of the projects kept her identity secret from fellow volunteers and community members, out of concern for her safety. Her home address has been sealed in state court records, for the same reason.
Given enough time, though, wounds will heal.
When Barton was sentenced in federal court in 2003, Ginger Krabbenhoft, whose 40-acre property near Florissant was rendered barren by the fire, stood outside the courthouse and said of Barton, “I have no sympathy for her. None. I’m sorry. I wish I did.”
Today Krabbenhoft spares Barton from such a harsh judgment. She hasn’t forgiven Barton, Krabbenhoft said, but her anger is directed more now at the Forest Service for failing to stop the fire.
Asked whether she believes Barton has told the truth about the fire, Krabbenhoft responds, “I wasn’t there. I don’t know. I have to trust her on that.”
And then, “We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.”
In the clearing along Road 290, the fire’s grip is also loosening.
Baby pine trees, only about 8 inches tall, are poking up through the ground. Little aspen trees are there, too, beside blooms of wild iris, potentilla and daisies.
In this forest that is gradually forgetting its damage, it doesn’t matter if there was a letter. And to those people entrusted with finding out the truth about the fire, the question comes with less urgency today, too.
“She started the fire,” Suthers said, “…It’s just a question of why she started it. I don’t think it matters that much today. We know what the result is, and it was a terrible result.”
“We were very comfortable on how it started and where it started,” Forest Service Special Agent Brenda Schultz, who led the investigation, said this month. “Why she struck the match, only she knows that.”
At a house in northeast Colorado Springs, there are two baskets of petunias sitting on the front porch. A wind chime jingles in the breeze. The front blinds are drawn.
County records list the home as belonging to John Barton, with whom Terry Barton testified in 2008 she was in the process of reconciling.
The one person who knows how the Hayman fire started lives here, behind a front door with bells on it.
Knock once. No answer.
Knock again. Same result.
Later, a friend of Barton’s calls. Ten years after, the friend says, Terry Barton wishes to remain silent.