DURANGO, Colo. – Ten businesses and residents of southwestern Colorado have filed a lawsuit against the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company, its operator and owner and accuse them of starting the 416 Fire that burned dozens of square miles in the area earlier this summer.
The lawsuit was filed Friday by two Colorado law firms in La Plata County District Court and claims that emissions from the coal-fired train sparked the fire outside of Durango on June 1.
The railroad company, its officer Al Harper and American Heritage Railways, Inc. are named as defendants.
The fire burned more than 54,000 acres, mostly on federal land, earlier this summer. The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs suffered damages either as a result of lost business or property damage and that those living in the area “have the chance to learn about how and why the fire started.”
Fire officials have not released the cause of the fire, though many residents in the area have speculated that the train caused the fire and have asked it switch to steam power. The railroad shut down operations in June while the fire burned. At the time, the Harpers said that they estimated its closure would cost the area about $33 million and said the railroad had taken steps to prevent fires.
“We know the train is beloved in the Durango-Silverton area. It is not our intent to put them out of business,” said one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Durango-based Bobby Duthie, about the lawsuit. “However, we believe the management of the train should be held accountable for the damages they caused, which could have easily been avoided had they acted sensibly.”
Harper told the Associated Press he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because he hadn’t been served and a cause of the fire has not been declared.
But the lawsuit says that Harper and the railroad should have known of the fire dangers because of the drought in the area at the time.
“As I learned about the many fires the railroad started and its decision process to run a coal-fired steam locomotive during extreme drought conditions, I was moved to act, so my fellow La Plata County and San Juan County citizens and businesses could recover their losses from the responsible parties,” Duthie said.
The plaintiffs are asking a judge to enter a judgment for all damages incurred by the fire, including smoke, flooding, water and mudslide damage that may have happened during or after the fire. They are asking for a financial award and attorneys’ fees and expenses.