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FIRST-PERSON: Forest fire provides sermon fodder

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP)–A longtime U.S. Forest Service employee has been charged with starting the illegal fire that quickly blazed into the largest fire in Colorado history, incinerating over 100,000 acres of forest and destroying 25 homes and several businesses. Over 2,000 firefighters (and over $21 million) have worked to contain the great blaze.

With an irony that is the stuff of great story, Terry Barton, the very employee who was supposed to be patrolling the Hayman area of the national forest for illegal campfires is said to have ignited the spark that raged out of control, leaping from dry timber to timber.

In her first story to authorities, she claimed to have “come upon” an illegal campfire, the wildfire’s source. She recanted this story when presented with the forensic evidence, which pointed to the fire as an act of arson and to the “abandoned campfire” as staged.

When the evidence became a pointing finger, Barton revised her account. She said she burned, in a moment of anger, a letter from her estranged husband. But this second story has not held up either. Now authorities charge that she started the fire willfully and maliciously. Some wonder whether she was hoping to brand herself a hero. Others just shrug their shoulders at the “million dollar question” of motive. Whatever theory they consider, her actions have prompted more questions than answers.

While it’s difficult to see anything positive coming from this blaze and its immense destruction of the environment, preachers might take advantage of this unmistakably profound sermon illustration, for indeed, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire” (James 3:5). A small spark of anger, of bitterness, or of malice can erupt into a forest of flame, and “set on fire the cycle of nature” (James 3:6).

We do not know the events surrounding the origin of the wildfire nor do we know the motivations behind Barton’s actions. We’ve seen the devastating result, however, and we’ve heard that Barton faces a maximum sentence of 75 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines for destroying U.S. property and causing personal injury.

Barton has worked as a seasonal employee for the national forest for almost 20 years and she’s never given trouble before, according to U.S. Attorney William Taylor. She tried to restrain the fire, according to U.S. District Attorney Bill Leone, but it too quickly went out of control. Calling Terry an “awesome girl,” Barton family friend Connie Work said, “It was never her intent to do what has happened. . . situations sometime just get out of control.”

Regardless of Barton’s “intent” and guilt, the last part of Work’s statement couldn’t be more true. Again, as the apostle noted, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.” This incident just goes to show that anyone can set in motion a terrible fire, with even the smallest of flames. Our words, our anger, our ambitions can rage quickly out of control.

And at the risk of flippancy, a final suggestion for angry spouses: Try a paper-shredder.
Roberts is a member of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield.

    About the Author

  • Kyle Roberts