Nearly a dozen residents and businesses have filed a lawsuit against the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, accusing it of starting the 416 Fire earlier this summer.
The lawsuit was filed before the Forest Service has completed its own official investigation into the fire's cause. It claims that train management was “careless,” and claims witnesses saw sparks come from the coal-fired steam train, starting the blaze.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad travels 50 miles between Durango and Silverton through the San Juan National Forest. The 416 Fire started June 1 and burned more than 54,000 acres 13 miles north of Durango.
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Numerous businesses, residents and the cities of Durango and Silverton had their property destroyed and suffered a loss in revenue as a result of the fire, said Bobby Duthie, a Durango lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The suit names the owner and CEO of the railroad, Allen Harper.
“Those individuals want to be compensated for their losses because we have no doubt and are very certain that the 416 Fire was started by Mr. Harper,” Duthie said Tuesday morning. “It couldn’t have been anything else but the narrow gauge train.”
The suit had not yet to been accepted by the 6th Judicial Court on Tuesday morning, said Christian Robbins, marketing director for the railroad. He said the railroad has been advised not to comment on the pending lawsuit, but it is being represented by Gebert Bruckner Gentile P.C. in New Mexico.
Duthie acknowledges the criticism he and his plaintiffs have received by filing a suit before the cause of the 416 Fire has even been announced. But he said interviews with two eyewitnesses and two fire experts support the lawsuit's claims.
The Durango Herald reported Monday that the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for investigating the cause and plans to announce it in late fall or early winter. Colorado’s State Attorney General is expected to review the report before it’s released.
“We’ve put in many many hours trying to determine and do our homework to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Duthie said. “I think everybody in Durango probably struggles with its relationship with the train. We all love the train. The lawsuit is not against the train, it’s against the managerial decisions made by Mr. Harper and his staff to put the train on the tracks.”
The lawsuit claims the fire could have been prevented by having water tankers or a helicopter follow the train or by not running the train at all that day. But the railroad “took none of these steps despite being aware that using any of these precautions could have prevented a fire like the 416 Fire from starting and quickly getting out of control,” the suit said.
“By filing this lawsuit, Plaintiffs, as guardians of Durango and Silverton history, seek to safeguard the natural beauty of the San Juan National Forest and protect future generations from devastating wildfires that can be avoided through the exercise of due care and diligence," the suit said.