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Durango train company agrees to $20 million settlement in lawsuit over 2018 wildfire damages

The fire ignited on June 1, 2018, near a railroad track in southwestern Colorado.

(CN) — The federal government reached a $20 million settlement with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company over 2018 wildfire damages, according to a consent decree filed Monday.

“The U.S. and defendants have agreed to certain additional undertakings designed to enhance the safe operations of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company’s railroad in light of changing climate conditions in the western U.S.,” the decree stated.

A fire ignited on June 1, 2018 near a railroad track where the historic coal powered train was making its rounds past the Irongate neighborhood north of Durango. Federal fire investigators concluded embers from the train’s exhaust stack caught on the dry brush, and ignited the 416 fire that consumed 54,130 acres of the San Juan National Forest.

Eyewitnesses who reported seeing the embers attempted to put out the early brush fire but were unable to beat the wind.

In the consent decree however, the train company continues to deny responsibility for the fire or that the U.S. is entitled to fire suppression costs.

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 Durango & Silverton Railroad represents an important historic and cultural icon in southwest Colorado,” said U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan in a statement. “We intend for this settlement to enable the railroad to continue to operate, but in a manner that will avoid causing future catastrophic wildfires.”

The train operator has agreed to hire a fire management officer, submit an annual fire prevention plan to the U.S. Forest Service and consult with experts on fire mitigation and prevention.

The company will also deposit $100,000 annually into a self-insured catastrophic wildfire fund to cover future costs of putting out wildfires thought to be sparked by the train.

“When finalized, the proposed settlement and subsequent operational changes will help protect southwestern Colorado’s communities, cultural, and natural resources from future wildfires,” said Frank Beum, Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service in a statement.

Each party has agreed to cover its own attorneys’ fees.

Citizens filed three other lawsuits against the train operator that are scheduled to go to trial in the fall. The consent decree states the railroad company intends to settle these as well.

Representatives for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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