Woman Who Started Colorado's Largest Wildfire Says Her Judge Was 'Biased'

DENVER, Col. (AP) -- The woman who started the worst wildfire in Colorado history says she believes the Colorado Court of Appeals was correct in ordering a new sentencing hearing in part because her judge was affected by the blaze.

In a jailhouse interview in Texas with KMGH-TV of Denver, former Forest Service worker Terry Lynn Barton said she is ``paying for my mistake'' with a 12-year sentence she believes is too harsh.

Last week, the appeals court agreed and said state District Judge Edward Colt had at least ``the appearance of prejudice'' because smoke from the 2002 Hayman fire prompted him to leave his home for a night.

"Anybody that was sitting in that courtroom should have known that Judge Colt was biased,'' Barton told KMGH.

The court has ordered a new sentencing hearing before a new judge. Barton's attorney, Sharlene Reynolds, said that should result in a six-year sentence _ the same sentence she received in federal court for the fire. The state and federal terms are being served concurrently.

"My lawyer was telling me, 'This is big, Terry, this is big. Merry Christmas.' And I'm saying OK, I'm still, you know, I'm still in prison and it doesn't hit you like it hits everybody outside,'' Barton said of the appeals ruling.

The fire, which started when Barton burned a letter from her estranged husband, blackened 138,000 acres, destroyed 300 buildings and caused property damage in excess of $29 million. More than 8,000 people had to evacuate their homes, and winds drove the flames to within 10 miles of Denver's southwestern suburbs at one point.

The appeals court said Colt acted improperly when he gave Barton twice the normal maximum prison term. The judge had cited the catastrophic results of the fire and Barton's own knowledge of fires as a Forest Service employee.

Barton has also been ordered to pay $42.2 million in restitution.

"Every day it is something I have to live with, trying to figure out why didn't I do something different,'' she said Wednesday. ``And then I can get depressed and then I have to come back out of it and say I've got to keep going on. I can't sit in prison and be depressed while my girls are out there. I've got to be strong for them.''

She said seeing her teenage daughters only twice a year is the hardest part of her incarceration. She said she hopes a new sentence could clear the way for her to transfer to a federal facility in California where she can see the girls every week.

In part of the interview that aired Thursday, Barton said the Forest Service shared blame for the devastating blaze because of what she called mistakes in staffing, equipment and strategy.

"I truly believe, if it was fought properly, it would have been out in two to three days, maybe four at the most,'' she said, while accepting the blame for her own role in the fire.

"I truly don't believe that you can blame everything on me,'' Barton said.

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