Don’t Blame Us for Wildfire Still Under Investigation, Railroad Tells Feds

Flames consume trees during a burnout operation that was performed south of County Road 202 near Durango, Colo., on June 11, 2018. The burnout takes away fuels from the 416 Fire. Firefighters use the technique to burn in conditions so that they can control the fire and lose no homes. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP)

DENVER (CN) – Though the 416 Fire has sparked three lawsuits against it, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad maintains its coal-powered train did not spark the 54,000 acre wildfire across southwestern Colorado last summer.

“The cause of the 416 Fire has been under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service since June 1, 2018,” the railway said Monday in its 14-page motion to dismiss. “As of the date of filing of this motion, no written report or other documentation of the plaintiff’s investigation has been produced or published.”

The fire started June 1, 2018, and burned through November 29, 2018. Despite consuming tens of thousands of acres of national forest wood, the fire caused no deaths and destroyed no structures.

Originally a freight line through the San Juan Mountains 137 years ago, the railroad is now a National Historic Landmark, essential to the small-town tourism economy. Silverton businesses took a dive when the fire forced the train company to cancel 31,000 reservations during the 4th of July weekend, according to the Durango Herald.

Eyewitnesses Al Chione and Cres Fleming, who live near the tracks and often perform as volunteer fire fighters, reported seeing embers from the coal-fired train spark the blaze. But the U.S. Forest Service has not released an official report and the government incident information system continues to report the cause “unknown.”

The train company also points to the fact that the fire originated not on their tracks but “approximately 30 feet west of the narrow-gauge railroad tracks near mile marker 466.”

In its lawsuit filed in July, the United States said “federal fire investigators have determined that the 416 Fire was ignited by particles emitted from an exhaust stack on a coal-burning, steam train engine owned and operated by defendants.”

Regardless of how the fire started, the train company contested that the United States is only able to recover damages for property destroyed by fire, not “fire suppression costs.”

Residents of Durango first sued the train company this past September in the District Court of La Plata County. American Reliable Insurance Company filed a third lawsuit in the same court August 29, seeking to recover $3.2 million paid out in property damage claims.

The train runs 41 miles along the Animas River between Durango and Silverton.

The railroad is represented by Denver attorney Richard Waltz of the firm Waltz Reeves. U.S. Attorney Jacob Licht-Steenfat is arguing on behalf of the federal government. Neither party responded to requests for comment by press time.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn, appointed by George Bush, referred the motion to U.S. Magistrate Judge Reid Neureiter.


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