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416 Fire investigation taking ‘longer than expected,’ Forest Service says

La Plata County commissioner grills officials about why a cause has not been released
The U.S. Forest Service says the investigation into cause of the 416 Fire, which started June 1, 2018, has been delayed.

The investigation into the cause of the 416 Fire is taking “longer than expected,” a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday.

Denise Alonzo, who recently took on the job of spokesperson for the San Juan National Forest, said the complexity of the investigation, as well as the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year, has delayed Forest Service officials from releasing a final determination.

The Forest Service had previously said a cause would be released in late fall or early winter.

“Things just haven’t happened as timely as they were expected to,” Alonzo said. “As soon as we understand the final determination of the cause, that information will be released. Until then, we don’t have anything else to share.”

The 416 Fire broke out June 1 and burned an estimated 54,000 acres north of Durango, forced thousands of evacuations and caused economic loss to some business and government sectors of Southwest Colorado.

Ever since, residents have waited for a final conclusion about what caused the fire.

“The big question over the last year is the 416 Fire investigation,” La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt told Forest Service staff at a meeting Tuesday. “All tied up in politics sounds like to me.”

Beth Anderson, the Forest Service’s acting Columbine District ranger, said there is no behind-the-scenes politics at play holding up the release of the fire’s cause. She said attorneys at the Forest Service’s Office of General Counsel are still investigating.

“The investigation is still pending, it’s not complete,” Anderson said.

Jeffrey Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the department now in control of the investigation, wrote in an email late Tuesday to The Durango Herald that he was unable to comment until Wednesday afternoon.

As of Tuesday, it had been 291 days since the 416 Fire started.

Lachelt said causes have been determined for most other major fires that occurred last summer. She said it is important for the community to know what caused the 416 Fire so it can be better prepared for the upcoming fire season.

“We were hearing the cause of all these other investigations as those fires were burning … yet we still don’t have ours,” she said. “… This isn’t cool.”

According to a federal wildfire information database, the location of the start of the 416 Fire was just west of train tracks for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, about 10 miles north of Durango.

In a previous story in the Herald, several residents in the Meadowridge subdivision said they saw wisps of smoke up the hillside around 9:45 a.m. June 1, moments after a train passed by.

The account has caused intense suspicion that a coal-fired engine, known for sending off cinders that can start fires, is the culprit in the 416 Fire. In September, a number of residents and businesses filed a lawsuit against the railroad for losses as a result of the fire.

Anthony Savastano, an attorney representing residents and businesses, said the lawsuit was put on a stay after District Judge William Herringer recused himself. Last week, Judge Suzanne Carlson picked up the case. Savastano said Tuesday a court date has not yet been scheduled.

In previous interviews, railroad owner Al Harper said the D&SNG will take responsibility if it is found to be the cause of the fire.

The fire, last estimated to cost $40 million to battle, was largely put in check by mid-July and was declared officially out Nov. 30.

But the fire itself is only part of the impact of the 416 Fire. The burn scar has created flooding danger, which materialized in July and September after heavy rains. It is expected this year’s snowmelt is going to exacerbate the problem.

Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said the county is working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help residents prepare for future flooding from the 416 Fire burn scar. The work, however, can’t happen until after all the snow is gone from this year’s spring runoff, leaving residents vulnerable to flooding.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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