Is the Durango & Silverton Railroad to blame for the massive 416 fire?

DURANGO, Colo. — The 416 Fire burning in southwestern Colorado near Durango has charred more than 26,000 acres since it was first reported June 1.

During a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, officials said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but some are pointing the finger of blame at one the area’s biggest tourist draws.

Residents say a spark from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has suspended service because of the 416 Fire, started the blaze. It's a sentiment shared by many in the area. 

"Sometimes you see smoke; sometimes you see fire. It’s not uncommon," Durango resident Chloe Bovoletis said about the historic rail line. "It’s pretty common knowledge that the train starts fires."

Residents like Chloe would like the steam-operated rail attraction to change how it operates to reduce the risk of fire, but it's something that John Harper, owner of the railroad, said would be difficult to do. 

"On a peak summer day, we have about 45-50 passenger cars going to Silverton. And with our diesel service, we can only have about 12," Harper said. 

The reduction in passenger service would dramatically affect the local economy, Harper said. The railroad brings in millions of tourist dollars to the area. 

Harper said his railroad has taken several steps to prevent fires from the operation of the rail line. 

"Our number one thing we do is do everything we can to prevent a fire," he said, "We’ve added stack sprayers, stack screens, spark arresters."

But Harper stresses the investigation is not complete, and he's not ready to take the blame for the 416 Fire. 

"The railroad is not going to take responsibility of that fire because the investigation is still going on,” he said. 

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad may resume operations beginning July 1, depending on conditions. 

The Durango Area Tourism Office told the Durango Herald last week that tourism to the area had been largely unaffected, but Harper said if a lengthy closure of the rail line is put in place, it could cost the area economy millions.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper acknowledged the concerns about the local economy Wednesday.

“I think everybody is worried. We know from experience, when you have natural disasters, often times where damage really occurs is when people interrupt and disrupt their travel plans, and a lot of the small business in the affected areas really suffer,” he said.

Russell  Haythorn, Blair Miller contributed to this report. 

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