A Moth To The Flame

Terry Barton told friends she wasn't going to take it anymore. She wanted a divorce. Her estranged husband, John, was a bad drinker, a man with a mean streak and a checkered work history. She wanted him gone. For Terry, 38, it would be a struggle to raise two teenage daughters on her $1,500-a-month paycheck as a U.S. Forest Service worker in Colorado. She vowed to make it work.

But now John was back. After living in Arkansas for several months, he had returned to the family's bright red, cedar-frame ranch in the Rocky Mountain foothills. He made it clear: he didn't want a divorce. Uncomfortable with him in the house, Terry packed her Forest Service uniform in a backpack and went to spend the night with her best friend, Stephanie Howard, a wildlife biologist. The next morning, on June 8, she drove to her job in the Pike National Forest. Her assignment that day was fire patrol--making sure that nobody foolishly started a campfire in the parched wilderness of juniper and aspen.

Instead, she lit a match. For reasons that remain a mystery for a trusted 18-year veteran of the Forest Service, Terry Barton started a blaze that would grow into the worst wildfire in Colorado history, the Hayman fire, scorching more than 135,000 acres, destroying more than 100 homes and forcing the evacuation of nearly 9,000 people. Officials say the blaze has exacted roughly $17.5 million in damages thus far--and it may be months before it is completely snuffed out. Amid a devastating fire season that has engulfed more than 1.75 million acres from Colorado to California, Barton's actions were, at the very least, absurdly bad judgment. In a confession to authorities, she said she had impulsively and bitterly burned a two-page letter from John in a campfire, and that the flames somehow escaped the ring of rocks without her knowing it. But investigators don't buy the story.

Prosecutors say the fire was set "willfully" and "maliciously." Forest Service investigator Brenda Schultz told a federal court in Denver last week that the estranged husband says he never sent any letter to his wife. Moreover, Schultz said investigators discovered that rocks around the campfire had been moved to let the fire spread quickly. Federal officials told NEWSWEEK they are exploring a theory that Barton, who had expressed interest in a job as an arson investigator, might have been trying to gain fame by discovering, reporting and quenching the fire. It was Barton who reported the fire; when firefighters arrived on the scene, she was trying to put it out.

Sadly, the scenario is not that rare; in the last year alone, more than a half-dozen firefighters around the country have been charged with starting a blaze, or intending to. "The big one is the vanity hero type," says Doug Allen, an arson expert--the firefighter who starts blazes just so he can put them out.

If anything can explain Barton's actions, her friends insist it was the toll of trying to escape a torturous marriage. John Barton, who was charged with domestic battery against Terry in California in 1992, was arrested for drunken driving in Colorado last fall. "Pain makes you do crazy things," said Nancy Segovia, a friend of Terry's from church. (The battery charge was dropped after Barton completed a domestic-violence course; the drunk-driving charge cost him his license for a spell. Barton could not be reached for comment.) After Terry's arrest, Segovia noted, "he didn't even stick around with the kids--that ought to tell you something about him." Their daughters, Tasha, 17, and Brandy, 14, have been staying with Terry's sister, Carla Freeman.

For Terry Barton, life was a struggle from the start. She grew up in a house trailer in a dusty little town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in California. She dropped out of school before her junior year at Reedley High School. Pregnant at 20, she married John Barton in Las Vegas. At the time, she was working in the Sequoia National Forest. By all accounts, the marriage was troubled from the outset, though John occasionally promised to quit drinking. Looking for a new start, the family moved to the Colorado foothills in 1994, and Terry took a seasonal job with the Forest Service. Friends say Terry was thrilled last year when she got a full-time job at the Pike National Forest.

Even John's family, who say they don't know where he's gone, speak in glowing terms about Terry. John's father, James Barton, 70, described Terry as "honest as could be," saying, "Truthfully, I would believe her before I'd believe him." Terry was so gung-ho about her duty as a forestry worker that she once threatened to turn him in to authorities after he suggested he might dump hazardous chemicals. "She said, 'I'd turn in my own mother if she did something wrong'," the elder Barton recalls.

A stout woman with long blond hair, Terry Barton mostly stared at the courtroom floor during a bond hearing in Denver last week, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Her friend Howard told the court that Terry was trying to recover from a hellish marriage "and was starting to make decisions on her own--good decisions" until John returned. One of the prosecutors, David Conner, asked Howard, "Are you saying John caused Terry to set this fire?" Howard paused a moment, then responded, "Indirectly, I am, yes."

Rejecting the prosecution's request for denying bond, U.S. Magistrate Michael Watanabe set the bail at $60,000, saying Terry could stay in a halfway house until the trial, with some conditions. Among them: she is not to set foot in a forest.