Durango Railroad Sued Over 54,000-Acre Fire

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) – Residents of Durango sued the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company over claims it caused a 54,000-acre fire earlier this summer.

Witnesses say they spotted the first spark of what became known as the 416 Fire in the morning of June 1, right after Durango & Silverton’s coal-powered steam engine passed by their neighborhood.

“We know it was an accident, but it was preventable because the train should have never been put on the tracks on June 1, 2018 when this fire ignited,” plaintiffs’ attorney Bobby Duthie said in an interview.

According to the 18-page complaint, train operators should have taken note of Stage 1 restrictions implemented by Durango fire officials on May 1, followed by Stage 2 restrictions on June 1, which banned campfires and open flames.

“By not hiring [a] helicopter to follow the coal-fired steam train or utilizing a water tanker car to travel with the train on the morning of June 1, 2018, the same morning the heightened fire restrictions were put in place due to the severe drought and in spite of the high winds, the defendants saved themselves money,” plaintiffs claimed in the lawsuit.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad services diesel and coal-fired steam engines on a 45-mile track that carries tourists between Durango and Silverton in southwestern Colorado.

“The reason I am so certain and the reason I have no doubt that the train started the fire is because an eyewitness saw the train coming up the steepest grade on the track,” Duthie said.

Duthie is a second-generation Durango resident with the firm Duthie Savastano & Brungard.

Officially, the cause of the 416 Fire remains under investigation. But  train enthusiasts and residents of the Irongate subdivision near the track, Al Chione and Cres Fleming, have been spreading the word about what they saw.

“I can tell you I was the second person to the fire,” Cres Fleming told Courthouse News in June. “I have a neighbor who basically is our fire watch guy and every time a train comes up the hill, he waves to the train and then he waits out on his deck to see if maybe a fire has been started by the train. On June 1, the second train up the hill apparently started the fire.”

Acting as the subdivision’s volunteer firefighter, Fleming uses a converted insecticide sprayer as a water truck. He also tended to four fires along the train track in May.

“One only needs to watch one of these locomotives going up the hill at night, and it looks like a firework display coming out of the stack,” he said.

The 416 Fire led to the evacuation of Hermosa County, as well as the closure of the San Isabel National Park and Highway 550 over the July 4 weekend – the peak of small town Silverton’s tourism season.

In addition to the initial fire damage, Duthie said residents suffered from flooding during subsequent rains in July.

The Lawrence M. Coehn Family Trust, which owns a home damaged by floods on July 17 and 24, are lead plaintiffs in the civil suit. According to the lawsuit, the fire’s disruption of the surrounding landscape made the flooding worse. Seven other residents and two local businesses, the Westerly RV Park and Colorado Outback Adventures, are also named plaintiffs.

“It’s a controversial lawsuit down here, because I love the train, I woke up every morning to the train whistle,” Duthie said. “The train means so much to the communities of Durango and Silverton, in all ways, and I think the people should be held accountable and responsible for what they’ve done.”

The lawsuit accuses the railroad company of liability and negligence.

The lawsuit, filed Friday night in La Plata County District Court, became available to the public on Tuesday.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.

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