Railroad only pays half of cost of fires caused by their steam engines

Coal-burning trains operated by D&SNG in Colorado have started multiple wildfires in the San Juan National Forest

According to an article in the Durango Herald the company that operates a steam-powered railroad for tourists north of Durango, Colorado has been paying only about half of the costs of suppressing numerous fires started by the coal-burning locomotives.

The newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request in order to get the U.S. Forest Service to release information about the fires caused by the train that burned in the San Juan National Forest. Much of the 42-mile route the steam engines travel between Durango and Silverton is within the National Forest.

The Herald studied seven of the major fires that occurred between 1994 and 2013 that investigators determined were started by the train. In these cases the railroad offered to pay much less than the amount billed by the Forest Service. The agency settled with the company, agreeing to allow payments of between 20 and 88 percent for the seven fires, averaging 53 percent of the billed amounts.

We assembled the data from the article and created the table below.

D&SNG payments for wildfires steam engine train
Data collected by the Durango Herald from the USFS; collated by Wildfire Today.

The U.S. Forest Service has not released the cause of the most recent fire that started near the railroad, the 416 Fire that burned about 54,000 acres and ran up suppression costs totaling approximately $31.3 million as of six weeks after the fire started.

At least six local residents and business owners in the Durango area have filed a lawsuit against D&SNG alleging that the train started the 416 Fire on June 1.

D&SNG reports that they plan to replace some of the coal-powered locomotives with diesel engines during periods of high wildfire danger.

Click here to see all articles on Wildfire Today about trains and wildfires.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Lawsuit filed alleging steam engine train started 416 Fire

The fire burned over 54,000 acres north of Durango, Colorado in June, 2018

At least six local residents and business owners in the Durango, Colorado area have filed a lawsuit against the company that operates the steam engine-powered train that hauls tourists on a 50-mile route between that city and Silverton. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotive burns coal which heats water, converting it to steam. Similar powered trains are known to start fires when burning embers are produced along with the smoke. The suit alleges that the train started a fire on June 1  north of Durango that eventually burned over 54,000 acres in very steep terrain west of Highway 550.

map 416 fire
The 416 Fire, July 4, 2018.

When the fire first started it was named the “Train xx Fire”. But instead of the “xx” there was a number, which gave the impression that a train had also started other fires in the area. After the fire quickly grew very large, the name was changed to “416 Fire”. The U.S. Forest Service investigated to determine the cause, but according to an article in the Durango Herald they have not released the results, which will likely be reviewed by Colorado State Attorney General’s office before they are revealed in late fall or early winter.

The people that filed the lawsuit claim the fire adversely affected tourism, causing a 5.6 percent drop in sales tax and a 13.2 percent drop in lodgers tax  over the same period in 2017.

MD87 air tanker drops 416 Fire
An MD87 air tanker drops on the 416 Fire June 7, 2018. Photo by Dan Bender, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

Below are excerpts from the Herald’s article:

Plaintiffs say the company and its owner knew, or should have known, of the drought conditions that existed at the time the fire started.

The company did work to prevent this possibility. The train has its own firefighting tactics, such as having pop cars with water tankers follow a train to extinguish small fires and a helicopter to tackle fires from the air.

But plaintiffs say the railway operator was not equipped to extinguish this blaze. It had just laid off its veteran crew of firefighters at the beginning of the year, the lawsuit states, and replaced them “with employees much less experienced in fire mitigation and firefighting techniques.”

Fire crews “were unable to put down the fire because they were insufficiently trained by the defendant and/or because the firefighting equipment provided on the pop car was wholly insufficient to appropriately respond to the fire,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

The video below is an interview with Cres Fleming who was the second person on scene at the 416 Fire June 1, 2018.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Multiple wildfires burning in Colorado

Above: Colorado Fires. Heat detected at 1:01 p.m. MDT June 30, 2018.

(UPDATED at 6:11 p.m. MDT June 30, 2018)

Colorado has been the location where much of the firefighting action has taken place during the last couple of weeks and that continues as at least five large blazes burn across the state.

The map above shows the locations of the largest and most active fires. The heat data on the map is from 1:01 p.m.  MDT June 30.

Here is the list:

  • 416 Fire, 9 miles north of Durango. 47,000 acres. It started June 1.
  • Spring Creek Fire, between La Veta and Fort Garland along Highway 160. 38,000 acres. CDOT reports that the closure of US 160 between Fort Garland and La Veta and the closure of CO 12 between Cuchara and La Veta, will continue. The fire is now pretty well established on the north sides of Highway 160 and Mt. Maestas. (More information.)
  • Chateau Fire, 7 miles northwest of Cripple Creek. Our VERY UNOFFICIAL estimate puts it at 1,300 acres early Saturday afternoon. (More information)
  • Weston Pass Fire, 16 miles southeast of Leadville. Our VERY UNOFFICIAL estimate puts it at 3,400 acres early Saturday afternoon. US 285, in Park County, is closed between Fairplay and Antero Junction (mp 188 to mp 163) in both directions. A Type 1 Incident Management Team has been ordered and will assume command  7/1. This team will manage both the Weston Pass Fire and the High Chateau Fire. (More information)
  • Sugarloaf Fire, 13 miles northeast of Silverthorne. The Forest Service estimates it has burned about 1,300 acres. This fire is not being fully suppressed.

Satellite imagery of Colorado fires

These photos show the location of the wildfires in Colorado, via the heat sensors on satellites. The one above was taken at 1:57 p.m. MDT June 29 when the 416 Fire looked quite active. The Spring Creek Fire was mostly obscured by clouds, but the heat sensor was able to get a peek at it when a hole in the clouds passed over. The data in the map below was from 4:36 a.m. MDT June 29.

map Spring Creek 416 Fires Colorado
Satellite data collected at 4:36 a.m. MDT June 29, showing the heat on the Spring Creek and 416 Fires in Colorado. The red dots are the most current. Click to enlarge.

More information about the 416 and Spring Creek Fires.

Incident Commander on the 416 Fire interviewed as the team’s assignment ends

Since the fire started June 1 about 10 miles north of Durango, CO., it has burned over 34,000 acres west of Highway 550

Above: An undated photo of the 416 Fire, from Inciweb.

After being assigned to the 416 Fire for two weeks Todd Pechota’s Type 1 Incident Management Team will demobilize Friday morning and transition to Joe Reinarz’s National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) team. Mr. Pechota is the Forest Fire Management Officer on the Black Hills National Forest but is currently detailed into his former bosses job which is vacant, the Forest Supervisor position.

File photo of Forest FMO Todd Pechota on a prescribed fire in 2016. Screen grab from a video by Bill Gabbert.

As Mr. Pechota’s time on the 416 Fire wound down, Alex Semadeni, a writer for the Durango Herald, interviewed the Incident Commander.

Below is an excerpt:

“We were playing a bit of a tough hand based on weather and topography and fuels,” Pechota said. “In many, many places of the fire, we just couldn’t land on a place where being able to take care of them (firefighters) in the event of an injury was an acceptable risk.”

Pechota was also concerned about the fire’s proximity to homes and the city of Durango in general. The fact that the fire was across the highway from the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire wasn’t lost on him either.

“It’s kind of eerie,” he said. “If you’re a student of fire, you would look across the road and see the burn scar of Missionary Ridge. And what is the thing about Missionary Ridge that people remember? Some people it may have been the flooding. Some people it may have been the size. Some people it may have been the huge fire whirl that went across Vallecito. But many of us, the thing that we remember is that somebody died fighting the fire.

“That’s one of those things that when you’re asking young men and women to go engage a fire that you look right across the road and there is the burn scar from an event that took somebody’s life. It heightens our awareness, it heightens our sensitivity of operations, all those kind of things.”

416 Fire chinook helicopter
A Billings Helicopters Chinook departs from a water source after refilling their new internal water tank to help suppress the 416 Fire.

Weather slows fire activity in Western United States

Above: Accumulated precipitation over the last seven days, June 12-18, 2018. 

Moderating weather over the last seven days has helped firefighters make progress on some of the fires in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah. Today’s national Situation Report showed little or no increase in the size of wildfires in those four states. The 416 Fire in southwest Colorado and the Badger Creek Fire in southern Wyoming released a total of 345 personnel over the last 24 hours.

Todd Pechota’s Type 1 Incident Management Team is currently assigned to the 416 Fire, but Joe Reinarz’s NIMO team has been mobilized for the fire, which could be an indication that they expect it to be a long term incident. The west side of the fire has spread into steep, remote terrain above 8,000 feet as it grows closer to an 11,000 to 12,000-foot ridge five miles away. Much of the ridge is above the timber line and may eventually, with patience over time, serve as a barrier. Mr. Reinarz’s team team will transition on Friday.

Below, National Weather Service graphics show the observed precipitation and the departure from normal for the last 30 and 90 days.

precipitation 30 days
Accumulated precipitation, May 20 through June 18, 2018. NWS.
precipitation 30 days
Precipitation departure from average, May 20 through June 18, 2018. NWS.
precipitation 90 days
Accumulated precipitation March 21 through June 18, 2018. NWS.
precipitation 90 days
Precipitation departure from average, March 21 through June 18, 2018. NWS.