The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad started the 416 fire, which destroyed 54,000 acres in southwest Colorado, according to a federal lawsuit
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver alleges that the fire was started by burning particles emitted from an exhaust tack on a coal-burning steam engine locomotive owned by the company. The suit was filed against railroad’s owner and operator, American Heritage Railways, Inc., on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday morning.
The lawsuit asserts that the train company should be held liable for all of the damages incurred as a result of the fire, including the costs of fire suppression and the costs to rehabilitate the public lands damaged by the fire. Those costs haven’t been calculated yet, but the cost of suppression of the fire was about $25 million dollars.
“Protecting our public lands is one of the most important things we do in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn in a statement. “This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk. We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf.”
While the train company has declined to settle the lawsuit outside of court and hasn’t, at this point, made any admissions of wrongdoing, Dunn said the burden of proof on the state isn’t high.
“It's a strict liability statute which means we don't have to show that they were acting negligently or carelessly,” Dunn said. “It's simply that they're a railroad that caused the fire. And if we can show that, then we're entitled to recoup the damages that the federal government incurred.”
Durango and Silverton residents also filed a civil lawsuit last year for personal property and business damages. Bobby Duthie, the attorney for two dozen of those plaintiffs, said the decision to move forward with the lawsuit was controversial because the future of the train could hang in the balance.
“All of the plaintiffs that I represent, have no desire for the train to depart from Durango,” Duthie said. “It's a tough case. I mean, it burned 54,000 acres. The tourist economy and the environment in Durango was very much affected.”
One plaintiff who was looking to sell their home saw the property value plummet. Another lost an entire condominium complex to mudslides that occurred because of the burn scars, and spent their retirement fund trying to save it.
Duthie said for them, the train is important, but they need to regain some semblance of life as it was before the fire.
The 416 Fire was started June 1, 2018, near Durango and mostly burned San Juan National Forest land.
The blaze caused millions of dollars in damage to the local economy and triggered thousands of evacuations. It took five months and five tactical firefighting teams to completely extinguish the fire.