Federal government files suit against railroad for starting fire in Indiana

fire in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

The fire in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on March 10, 2012. (screen grab from the video below).

For decades the railroads in northwest Indiana south of Lake Michigan have been starting fires on private and public land, including Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Caused mostly by poor maintenance of their spark arrestors, the railroad companies were rarely if ever held accountable for the damage they caused.

In one case that may be changing. According to the Chicago Tribune, the federal government has filed suit against the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad which goes through Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The railroad allegedly started what became a 391-acre fire on March 10, 2012 that spread seven miles across the park, forcing residents of the community of Ogden Dunes to evacuate.

Below is an excerpt from the article in the Chicago Tribune:

…The fire burned through 391 acres of the national lakeshore, including the lakeshore’s Karner blue butterfly habitat, where the park had been trying to reintroduce the endangered species and to study the best landscape variations to do so.

The fire destroyed the data from the research, according to the lawsuit, along with other park property.

The government says that evidence, including a video, shows that hot cinders from a passing Indiana Harbor train were ejected from the train, which the lawsuit claims started the brush fire.

It adds that two of the train’s spark arrestor carbon traps were plugged and that front exhaust stack opening showed moderate to heavy carbon accumulation.

The government is asking that Indiana Harbor pay for all the damages and forfeit two of its locomotives toward that cost.

The video below shows a portion of the fire that day in 2012.

We wrote about the 2012 fire HERE and HERE.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Joe.

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Ontario government sues railroad company for starting four fires

Timmins 9 Fire, May 2012

The Timmins 9 Fire burned about 20,000 hectares (98,000 acres) in May, 2012.

From CBCnews:

The province [of Ontario] is seeking compensation from Canadian National Railway over four forest fires in 2012, including $38 million for a massive fire near Timmins.

The province is alleging the fires were started by passing trains. The other three court actions involve another fires near Timmins, Chapleau and Thunder Bay. The damages sought in those cases are between $1 million and $2 million each.

The $38 million court action involves a fire called Timmins 9 in May of 2012.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry alleges the fire was started by the passage of a train through the area. The fire burned 40,000 hectares (98,000 acres) of bush and destroyed several camps.

The fire was the largest one in the province in half a century, and came within about 20 kilometers of the City of Timmins…

Documents filed in the case regarding the Timmins 9 Fire include the following:

14  The Ministry investigators also determined that the point of origin of the fire was within the railway right-of-way and approximately 2 1/2 metres from the western most rail at mileage 96.48.

16. At the point of origin, the investigators found a metal fragment whose particular characteristics indicated it had been heated and had been exposed to the elements for a short time.

17. Metal fragments are a competent source of ignition and may be released due to inter alia treading or wear or buildup from railway operations. This particular metal fragment, recently deposited, was a result of the railway operations of the defendant CNR.

The documents also accuse the railroad of failing to:

  • properly maintain, repair, and inspect the tracks and right-of-way;
  • properly maintain, repair, and inspect its railway cars, engines, and equipment including brake assembly and exhaust systems;
  • manage vegetation through controlled burns or other means;
  • provide a sufficient number of stations on its routes and personnel on the trains to detect and suppress fires;
  • control or extinguish the fire and failed to limit its spread beyond its property.
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Wednesday morning one-liners

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014.

*The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published a report on a BIA engine that rolled over near Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014. Two people were injured, one seriously. The LLC says more than 50 fire vehicles have rolled over in the last 10 years.

*A Colorado artist has created a work consisting of rectilinear pillars suspended from the ceiling, each measuring nine feet tall, meant to convey the idea of a wildfire.

*A man spotted running from the 50-acre Foothill Fire in Ventura, California was arrested on suspicion of setting the blaze.

*Fire officials in Washington state suspect an arsonist is responsible for igniting 23 fires in less than two weeks. Most of them have been vegetation fires.

*A firefighting vehicle in Australia has been outfitted with drop-down steel wheels so that it can follow a steam-powered train, putting out wildfires started by the steam engine.

*In other news from Australia, a Senator gave a speech, titled, Thank you For Smoking, praising nicotine fiends for their $8 billion a year contribution to the economy. He said he did the math: Last year smokers cost the health care system $320 million and another $150 million in bushfire control.

*Researchers have found that “recent (2001–2010) beetle outbreak severity was unrelated to most field measures of subsequent fire severity, which was instead driven primarily by extreme burning conditions (weather) and topography.” Unfortunately, to read the article, researched and published by government employees, it will cost you $10 for two days of access. If the researchers, Brian J. Harvey, Daniel C. Donato, and Monica G. Turner, are going to hide the results of their taxpayer-funded research behind a pay wall, what’s the point in hiring researchers? Support Open Access.

*Firefighters are on alert in the Philippines for wildfires that may start from an eruption of the Mayon volcano.

*Firefighters are on lessened alert in the Black Hills after the area received two to five inches of rain over the last few days.

*California has burned through its wildfire-fighting budget — $209 million — just as it faces what is historically the worst of the fire season.

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California: Two fires east of Redding double in size

Map of Eiler and Bald Fires

Map of Eiler and Bald Fires, 11 p.m., August 2, 2014. (click to enlarge)

Two fires about 40 miles east of Redding, California doubled in size on Saturday. These fires are part of the reason the number of burned acres in California’s National Forest has quadrupled since Wednesday.

The Eiler and Bald Fires were both very active with each devouring an additional 16,000 to 17,000 acres.

Eiler Fire

The Eiler Fire, 40 miles east of Redding and 4 miles southeast of Burney, has blackened 23,000 acres. On Saturday it was very active on the north, southeast, and west sides, moving onto the east slope of Burney Mountain. Evacuations have been issued for Johnson Park, Cassel, Big Eddie Estates. An advisory has been issued for the town of Burney. The fire has crossed Highway 89 which remains closed from the junction of Hwy 44 and 89 north to Hwy 299.

The fire behavior was described by firefighters as “running, torching, and long range spotting, with rapid rates of spread downhill to the north and east.”

An engine from the Redding Fire Department was damaged in the Eiler Fire.

Redding FD engine damaged in Eiler Fire

Redding Fire Department engine sustained damaged in Eiler Fire. Photo by KRCR.

Bald Fire

The Bald Fire is 52 miles east of Redding, 13 miles east of Burney, and 7 miles east of the Eiler Fire. It doubled in size Saturday, spreading through drought-affected six-foot tall brush and patches of timber, growing from 17,000 acres to 34,000. Late on Saturday it was exhibiting extreme fire behavior, most actively spreading on the south and southwest sides.

Bald and Day Fires

Bald Fire with the Day Fire in the background. July 31, 2014. InciWeb photo.

BNSF Railroad is providing a two-car fire train to assist with fire suppression along the railroad tracks. In 2010 we wrote about fire trains. Here is an excerpt:

In the United States firefighting trains are frequently called water cars or fire trains. Usually a fire train consists of an engine, several tank cars carrying 7,000 to 14,000 gallons of water each, and sometimes a caboose for transporting the employees or firefighters to operate the fire equipment. Most fire trains carry an assortment of fire equipment including hose reels, hand tools, nozzles, and hose. Sometimes each tank car will have it’s own pump and master stream nozzles, and they often have the ability connect the tank cars together with hoses so that the water can be shared between the cars. When a fire train has an engine at each end, the train can be split so that both ends of a trestle can be protected at the same time.

firefighting train

A firefighting train on the White Lightning Complex Fire in August, 2010 near Warm Springs, Oregon.

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Wildfire briefing, May 8, 2014

Train ignites multiple fires in five cities

A freight train spraying sparks along railroad tracks in southern Maine started multiple wildfires in five cities on Thursday. Firefighters responded from 20 communities to the five alarm incident to battle fires in South Portland, Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco, and Biddeford. The worst hit area was the Wagon Wheel RV Resort and Campground, at 3 Old Orchard Beach Road. Firefighters said 10 campers were destroyed and another six were damaged.

Veterans hired as firefighters in New Mexico

A state-funded program in New Mexico called “Returning Heroes” is putting 46 veterans to work as wildland firefighters. More information can be found at KOAT.

Rain on the fires in Oklahoma

About an inch of rain Wednesday night is helping firefighters in Oklahoma suppress and mop up the fires near Guthrie and Woodward.

Air tanker arrives early at Santa Maria

A DC-10 and other firefighting aircraft are stationed at the Santa Maria airport in California about a month earlier than normal. A spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service said the planes were brought to Santa Maria early because of recent red flag warnings for extreme fire danger in the area.

Prose in a Police Log

The Police Log published in the Georgetown Record in Massachusetts does not waste any words. An entry about a vegetation fire on April 25, for example:

9:48 p.m. Services were rendered for a brush fire on Nelson Street.

Other services “rendered” included “a utility emergency on East Main Street”, “a disabled motor vehicle on Andover Street”, and “an animal complaint on Central Street”.

It takes years of experience and training to write an official report in the style of a firefighter or police officer.

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Burlington Northern railroad settles million dollar lawsuit for burning homes

Burlington Northern Santa Fe

File photo of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train

Railroads in the state of Washington get away with starting fires along their tracks because according to Joe Shramek, the Resource Protection Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, they can’t take action against a railroad for starting a fire unless they can prove that: :

…the railroad acted deliberately, intentionally, and recklessly.

As we wrote in 2009 about the sorry state of affairs in Washington, that is a ridiculously high standard. In most states and on federal land, a deliberately-set fire is one thing, arson, and a fire that is unintentional but results from negligence is treated as a separate violation of the law.  If the State of Washington can’t prosecute someone for negligently allowing a fire to start and/or burn public or private land, they need to amend their law.

King 5 in Seattle has been reporting on this for years, and identified over 200 fires in a 10-year period that were started by railroads in Washington. While the criminal system is sitting on their hands as railroads start fires in the state, three families used the civil system to sue the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad for starting a fire in 2007 that burned their homes. King 5 said the railroad is expected to pay a million dollar settlement when the details are finalized later this week in the lawsuit that was filed nearly five years ago.

Below is an excerpt from King 5:

A BNSF contractor was performing track maintenance, called grinding, in Skamania County in August of 2007. The grinding machine spews sparks and embers and it reportedly triggered several spot fires on the hot and windy August day.

In spite of this, the crew kept grinding and triggered a major fire near Broughton Mill in Skamania County. Video shows the flames racing up the Columbia River Gorge and destroying homes in the White Salmon area.

In 2009, the KING 5 Investigators identified the Broughton Mill fire as one of more than 200 wildfires sparked by railroad operations in Washington State in the previous 10 years. Critics said that some of these fires, like Broughton Mill, were preventable. Local cities and jurisdictions complained that they could not prevent hazardous railroading operations because the railroads are regulated by federal law.

The attorney for the three victims in the lawsuit declined to talk about the specifics of the settlement. But he did say his clients were glad to be at the end of a “…long, hard fight.”

“I’m hopeful that the railroads will abide by common sense and not do grinding or other dangerous railroad operations when the fire season is high,” said Spokane attorney Richard Eymann.

More information on Wildfire Today: Railroad-caused fires in Michigan and Washington – two different approaches

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