DENVER -- Just last week, veteran U.S. Forest Service worker Terry Barton was explaining how she stumbled upon what would become the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
"I tried to throw dirt on it, but the winds were going crazy and it was just too late," she told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. "I think I know in my heart that there was nothing I could do."
That story didn't add up to investigators who arrested the 38-year-old Barton on Sunday and accused her of igniting the blaze by setting fire to a letter from her estranged husband at a campfire site. They say she didn't notice the fire racing out of control until she was driving away.
The sprawling fire is about halfway contained. Hundreds of firefighters remain on duty and 5,400 residents are still waiting to go home.
Many have been angered by the arrest of an 18-year Forest Service employee for a fire that has destroyed 25 homes and burned 103,000 acres. Barton's colleagues are bewildered.
"It's tough. We still have a job to do," Forest Service spokesman David Steinke said. "A lot of people have called, telling us they are behind us and letting us know they're not blaming us.
"They trust us with their public lands. It feels good that people support us and realize that one person did this unthinkable act," he said.
Federal authorities say Barton confessed over the weekend and have charged her with setting fire to timber in a national forest, damaging federal property and making false statements to investigators. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Barton was ordered held without bail at the request of U.S. Attorney John Suthers.
"She would return to a community in which there is considerable hostility toward her," Suthers said.
Barton appeared in court in handcuffs. Her voice quavered as she told a magistrate that she understood she could be sentenced to prison. Her public defender, Rick Williamson, refused to comment.
The fire began June 8 and quickly roared out of control, burning across the foothills between Colorado Springs and the suburbs southwest of Denver. Investigators at first said it had been started by a campfire, then backed off and said it was somehow human-caused.
It was a week's worth of forensic work that led to the arrest.
Spread too quickly
Barton initially told investigators she was patrolling the Pike National Forest when she smelled smoke and went to investigate, according to affidavits. She said she found a 20- by 20-foot fire near a campsite, called for help and vainly attempted to put it out.
But investigators found evidence that the fire was set deliberately to look like an escaped campfire. They looked at the time it started and concluded that the fire spread too quickly to have come from a campfire.
"Given prevailing conditions and the distance Barton reportedly was from the point of origin at the time she smelled smoke, the fire could not have been the size reported by Barton when she allegedly discovered it," Agriculture Department agent Joseph Crook wrote.
Confronted with the evidence, authorities said Barton confessed Saturday.
Crook said Barton told them she was on patrol when she looked at a letter she had received that day from her estranged husband, grew angry and decided to burn it. She walked to the campfire ring and ignited the letter with matches, Crook said.
After she drove away, she turned back and saw the fire was on the ground, Crook said. She said she tried to put it out.