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Durango railroad pauses operations amid fire danger

Last weekend marked the first time this year trains have stopped running because of wildfire risk
A Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotive pulls passenger cars up the tracks in the Animas Valley in March. The D&SNG was forced to suspend operations because of wildfire risk just eight days into its season. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad paused its spring operations after just eight days based on precautions issued by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management about the increasing fire danger.

The train stopped running on Sunday, but operations resumed Wednesday after fire risk declined, said Jeff Johnson, general manager for D&SNG. The railroad added an additional train Wednesday to accommodate passengers affected by the pause.

The 2022 season marks the first time the railroad has had to modify its operations to meet the conditions outlined in its settlement with the federal government for the train’s role in the 416 Fire.

“For the last three days, we have not operated at all. Mainly we’re considering how we’re operating adjacent to Forest Service lands, but we’re still kind of working through that,” Johnson said. “We’re talking with the Forest Service on virtually a daily basis to make sure that we’re all aligned on the conditions as we operate.”

D&SNG canceled its Silverton services Sunday through Tuesday after the Forest Service and the BLM raised their Industrial Fire Precaution Level rating to Level 4, their highest designation, in response to hot and dry weather conditions.

The railroad agreed to comply with the federal agencies’ Durango Interagency Dispatch Center Industrial Fire Restrictions Plan as one of the conditions in its March 2022 settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.

The joint Industrial Fire Restrictions Plan places limits on the railroad’s operations when fire risk is elevated. At Level 2, coal locomotives are banned and a water wagon to suppress any ignitions must be available to respond within 30 minutes. At Level 3, any work that produces sparks or has an open flame is prohibited. Level 4 suspends all railroad operations.

In 2021, three days were classified as Level 4, according to the plan.

“Our hope is that the IFPL will not impact us on a significant level, but it’s definitely something that we are monitoring on a daily basis with the different agencies and we will adjust our operations as needed,” said John Harper, COO for American Heritage Railways, D&SNG’s parent company.

In addition to complying with the Industrial Fire Restrictions Plan, D&SNG also agreed to pay $20 million and accept a number of other conditions.

The federal government accused the train of starting the 416 Fire, which burned about 54,000 acres north of Durango, suing D&SNG and American Heritage Railways in July 2019 after an investigation by the Forest Service found that a cinder from the smokestack of one of D&SNG’s coal-burning locomotives started the blaze.

The railroad has maintained that it was not responsible for the fire and March’s settlement did not include an admission of D&SNG’s liability.

Among the other conditions of the agreement, the railroad must also prepare and submit an annual operating and fire prevention plan to the Forest Service and retain an independent consultant who will audit and make recommendations for D&SNG’s fire mitigation and prevention measures.

D&SNG is currently working with the Forest Service and the BLM on its operating and fire prevention plan, Harper said.

While the train was forced to cancel three days of trips, it has managed to limit impacts to passengers. Of those passengers Sunday, the train was able to reschedule about half of the trips to Saturday, Johnson said.

D&SNG can typically forecast precautions three to five days in advance. If the railroad has an advanced forecast, it will update its website with information about the cancellations. If the notice is last-minute, the train sends out text messages and emails to passengers, Johnson said.

“So far, it’s worked out really well,” he said.

D&SNG is also working with the Durango and Silverton chambers of commerce and other community groups to find ways to mitigate any impacts to tourism and direct passengers to other local businesses and activities, Harper said.

Sunday’s disruption came at an inopportune time with D&SNG’s Silverton trips beginning just eight days earlier. D&SNG has started the season with ridership slightly above the same time last year, Johnson said, with the Cascade Canyon Express set to come online in about a week and a half.

“It actually was a strong start and that’s what’s a bummer,” Harper said.

Though an ominous start to tourism season, Johnson was positive. Even amid rising gas prices and inflation, D&SNG’s ridership forecasts remain strong, he said.

As for the fire precautions, the railroad will continue to work with the Forest Service and the BLM to make sure that it is taking the necessary precautions as it operates and refining its forecasting to minimize any impact to tourists.

“It’s not a perfect science, and we’re still learning,” Johnson said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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