January 22, 2003 11:00 pm

By Ellen Miller

Special to The Observer

RIFLE, Colo. — A plea bargain may be reached next month to avoid a trial in the careless driving case against Megan Helm, the young Oregon firefighter who was at the wheel when a van crashed near Parachute, Colo., killing five of her crewmates.

Garfield County Judge Stephen Carter on Wednesday set a hearing for Feb. 26, at which Helm will either appear to agree to a plea bargain or the case will be set for trial.

Helm, 21, faces 10 counts of careless driving resulting in death or serious injury, all misdemeanors under Colorado law. She did not appear in court Wednesday with the judge's permission.

Helm and her firefighting crew, based in La Grande, were en route to the Hayman Fire on Colorado's Front Range on June 21 when the Ford 350 Super Duty van rolled over near Parachute, killing five and injuring six others.

Helm's attorney, John Hugger of Golden, Colo., said following the short court session that he's optimistic a resolution can be found.

"For the first time, I see the possibility it may not go to trial,'' Hugger said. "I believe significant progress was made today for a disposition.''

Deputy Garfield County District Attorney Jeff Cheney said he was "trying to be open-minded so the right result occurs.''

But the decision is not his to make, he added, since his boss, District Attorney Mac Myers, would have to approve.

Cheney said all but one of the victims and families originally pressing for full prosecution have changed their minds and are asking for leniency. The holdout family is that of Zachary Zigich of Twin Falls, Idaho, who died in the crash.

Before court, Hugger told reporters his focus remains on the Ford van, which he charged was unstable when loaded heavily and that Helm was not trained in its use or informed of the danger.

The van carried electronic data records that would provide analysis of the speed of the van, seat belt use and braking, if any, Hugger said.

But to access the data, he said, would cost $8,000 and "how much money does a 20-year-old have for a misdemeanor case?''

Outside the courtroom, Hugger met privately with Cheney. They then appeared before Carter and suggested yet another postponement so they can continue negotiations.

Cheney requested the Feb. 26 date so victims and their families can make travel arrangements to attend the hearing if they wish.

Carter agreed, and ordered Cheney to produce a status report by Feb. 12 as to the likelihood of a plea bargain.

"It would be a criminal waste of time for them to come to Rifle'' only to hear a trial date set instead of hearing a resolution, the judge said.

Garfield County has been a deadly place for Oregon firefighters. Just 25 miles east of Rifle, on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, 14 firefighters from the Prineville hotshot crew perished when a forest fire blew up in 1991.