DENVER, June 19 (UPI) -- A Forest Service employee was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges she purposely set a still-burning spectacular forest fire that has become the largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Terry Lynn Barton, 38, had told investigators she accidentally started the devastating blaze while burning a letter she had received from her estranged husband in a fire ring in the dangerously dry Pike National Forest, but the grand jury decided the blaze that became known as the infamous Hayman fire was intentionally set in the explosive-dry brush.
"Two of the four counts from today's indictment come from the arson statute of the Federal Criminal Code," said U.S. Attorney John Suthers. "These counts reflect the government's contention that the Hayman fire was deliberately set."
The Hayman fire began June 8 and roared through the rugged forests south of Denver, filling the city with dark smoke and ash for several days while viciously consuming 25 homes and 136,000 acres.
Barton, who was arrested earlier this week, will be arraigned Thursday on charges of setting fire to federal forests that could result in a maximum prison sentence of 75 years.
Suthers declined to elaborate on the charges, but he told the Denver Post on Tuesday that forestry investigators had their doubts about Barton's contention that the fire started accidentally while she was on a routine patrol to enforce a ban on campfires.
"There is an expert who set forth an opinion that this was made to look like a campfire spreading," he said. "He certainly doubts that portion of the story in which she says that inadvertently this letter started the forest fire."
The indictment of Barton was little consolation to the army of firefighters still looking to break the back of the stubborn Hayman fire.
Extremely dry air and temperatures in the mid 80s enthusiastically urged the fire onward, increasing its toll to nearly 180,000 acres. The fire is 40-percent contained, but even that incredible total acreage number was tenuous, at best.
"We are looking at extreme fire behavior with torching and plume events," said Fire Information Officer Ron Jablonski at the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center. "You can't leave firefighters in front of that kind of situation."
Terry McGann, a U.S. Forest Service fire information officer, explained why the bone-dry trees burn so rapidly. Their moisture content is only 4 percent compared to the 12 percent of kiln-dried lumber bought in a lumberyard.
Colorado and many other Rocky Mountain states are in the midst of a prolonged drought with no weather relief in sight. Fire bosses say it may take weeks to fully control the Hayman fire.
Near Durango, the Missionary Ridge fire has burned 44,320 acres and threatens to force more evacuations. At least 720 homes have been evacuated from 17 subdivisions along with 10 hikers who were rescued Tuesday by a helicopter. The fire is 25 percent contained.
President Bush Wednesday declared much of Colorado a disaster area, making counties, cities and Indian reservations eligible for low-cost loans and other financial assistance.
Fires also posed problems in California where numerous brush fires burned in the southern reaches of the state, and the investigation continued into the deadly crash of an air tanker on Monday near Yosemite National Park.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not determined what caused the wings of a C-130 tanker owned by a Wyoming company to fold up and send the aircraft into a pasture, killing the three crewmen. There were reports, however, that the aging plane had developed cracks in the wings in the past.
"It did have wing repair work, but all of our C-130s have," Patricia Wright, a maintenance inspection assistant at Hawkins & Powers Aviation told the Sacramento Bee.
Fires continued to burn around Gorman and in the Cajon Pass north of Los Angeles while a new blaze near Kitchen Creek in eastern San Diego County quickly burned nearly 1,000 acres and three structures. It was considered a threat to several homes in the area late Wednesday.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles and Phil Magers in Dallas)