Train causes five fires in South Dakota

A train is being blamed for starting five wildfires in southwest South Dakota on Friday. One of the fires near Ardmore burned an estimated 20 to 25 acres.

We have reported on numerous railroad-caused fires previously and have said that most of the time the railroad company receives a free pass. They start the fire (usually preventable by proper maintenance of their equipment), fire departments respond, put out the fire, and that’s the end of it.

Most railroad-caused fires are preventable.They are not inevitable.

Railroads need to be held accountable. They need to be billed for the suppression costs and any damage caused by the fire. They should also be charged with the crime of starting a fire. Only then will they have an incentive to properly maintain their equipment. Last year the U. S. Department of Justice settled a record $102 million civil lawsuit with the Union Pacific railroad for starting the 52,000 acre Storrie fire in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests in California in 2000.

File photo  of a railroad-caused fire in Indiana. Photo: Bill Gabbert

Fire departments, while suppressing a fire near railroad tracks, should also shut down the tracks to any further train traffic. This will provide a safer working environment for the firefighters, and also tends to get the attention of the managers of the railroad, especially on a busy section of track. Fire dispatchers should have the phone numbers available for the railroad dispatch office so they can make the call to shut down the tracks if requested by the on-scene firefighters.

Trains are supposed to stop if an emergency vehicle is parked near the tracks with the red lights flashing, but they don’t always adhere to this rule. I did this once on a fire and the train made what the engineer called an “emergency stop”. He was pissed, because when this is done, they have to walk the entire length of the train to check for any problems that may have been caused by the quick stop. Coal-hauling trains can be very long… I’m just saying.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.