U.S. blames railroad for causing 416 Fire, sues for $25 million

416 Fire. (Photo: La Plata County)

DENVER — The United States Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday it blames the railroad for starting the 416 Fire that burned more than 50,000 acres last year, largely in the San Juan National Forest.

According to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office, the office filed a lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado against the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and its owner and operator American Heritage Railways, Inc. The lawsuit claims the U.S. is owed about $25 million in suppression costs and other damages. Full rehabilitation costs have not been fully determined, according to the release.

The fire, which burned about 54,000 acres, burned for about 61 days starting June 1, 2018, and was not declared extinguished until Nov. 29, 2018.

The U.S. alleges in the complaint the fire started next to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company’s railroad track, and the fire was started because of burning particles that came from an exhaust stack on one of the railroad company’s coal-burning steam engine.

“Protecting our public lands is one of the most important things we do in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said Jason Dunn, U.S. Attorney, in the release.  “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.”

The U.S. Forest service investigated the incident, and San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick said in the release the fire was investigated with “great care and thoroughness.”

“We appreciate the communities’ patience through this process,” Chadwick said in the release. “We will continue to work toward preventing similar fires from happening by reminding local businesses and the public about their role in protecting nature, and using every available tool to improve forest conditions.”

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