DENVER – Federal officials announced on Tuesday that the 416 Fire which burned 54,000 acres in southwest Colorado last year was caused by burning cinders from an antique locomotive operated by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company.
The cause was released in a federal lawsuit from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado that seeks compensation for firefighting and rehabilitation efforts, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office says cost the federal government approximately $25 million so far.
U.S. Attorney for Colorado Jason Dunn announced the lawsuit Tuesday. The railroad company and its owner and operator, American Heritage Railways, Inc., are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
Much of the land burned in the fire, which was among several massive fires that burned in the state in 2018, sat in the San Juan National Forest and federal firefighting resources were used for months to put the fire down.
The fire, which sparked on June 1, was active for 61 days and was not declared extinguished until late November.
The lawsuit states that the locomotive that started the fire had a metal screen over its exhaust stack to capture burning exhaust particles but that the screen did not trap every particle. It says that some of those particles ended up on the ground next to the railroad and sparked a small brush fire, which then spread.
The suit says that they found the origin of the fire next to the track, along with a collection of extinguished embers and cinders at the point of origin. And it says that several eyewitnesses told investigators that the fire started just after one of the coal-fire steam locomotives passed.
Additionally, according to the suit, several fires were started in the months prior to June 1 by the steam locomotives operated by Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad company. It also names several other fires in the area started by the train, including the 2012 Goblin Fire, the 2012 Needleton Fire and the 2002 Schaff II Fire.
The United States is seeking compensation under Colorado Revised Statute § 40-30-103 which states: “Every railroad operating its line of road, or any part thereof, within this state shall be liable for all damages by fires that are set out or caused by operating any such line of road, or any part thereof, in this state, whether negligently or otherwise.”
The United States is seeking a trial to determine damages and is asking for pre-judgment interest, administrative costs and penalties, as well as post-judgment costs and attorney’s fees.
The railroad company also faces a lawsuit in La Plata County from 10 businesses and residents from the area who accused the railroad of starting the fire.
Many residents in the area had speculated that the train caused the fire and asked it switch to steam power. The railroad shut down operations while the fire burned. At the time , the company said that they estimated its closure would cost the area about $33 million and said the railroad had taken steps to prevent fires.
The railroad had restarted its service earlier this year.
Richard Waltz, with Denver-based Waltz Reevew Law, who is representing the railroad, said he could not comment on the suit because of the pending litigation in federal and state courts.
“Protecting our public lands is one of the most important things we do in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Dunn said in a statement. “This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk. We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf.”
“As with all fire investigations, the 416 Fire investigation with great care and thoroughness. We appreciate the communities’ patience through this process,” said San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick. “We will continue to work toward preventing similar fires from happening by reminding local businesses and the public about their role in protecting nature, and using every available tool to improve forest conditions.”
This is a developing news story and will be updated.