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Taxpayers pay half the costs when Durango-Silverton train starts fires

Forest Service responded to about 20 fires in two decades costing $1.2 million
Federal records show the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has a long history of starting wildfires, and paying significantly less than the total cost of fighting the fires, leaving taxpayers with about half the bill.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s coal-burning locomotives have a long history of starting wildfires on public lands, with about half the firefighting costs falling on the taxpayers.

According to a 20-year snapshot of fires started by the D&SNG in the San Juan National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has billed the railroad $1,195,265 for putting out the wildfires.

Of that amount, the D&SNG has paid only $623,078 – about half.

It is a reoccurring theme in two decades’ worth of fire investigations: A cinder from the D&SNG’s coal-burning engine will start a fire in the national forest. The Forest Service will send crews to fight the blaze. Investigators will deem the D&SNG at fault and send the railroad a bill for suppression costs.

But in almost every instance of several major fires started by the D&SNG, the railroad comes back with a lower counteroffer, often denying its locomotives were the cause of a fire.

And the Forest Service, time and again, agrees to the railroad’s marked-down offers.

The federal documents were released this week as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, which sought Forest Service investigations on fires started by the D&SNG. The agency provided records of completed fire investigations from 1994 through 2013. While nearly 20 fires sparked investigations during that time period, the FOIA request focused on eight major fires.

In August 2002, the Schaaf II Fire burned through more than 550 acres in the San Juan National Forest, and investigators deemed that a spark from a coal-fired train ignited the fire around 11:30 a.m. Aug. 16.It took nearly six years, but in February 2008, the D&SNG was billed more than $502,000 for firefighting costs.

Though no correspondence from D&SNG representatives were included in the Schaaf II Fire report, Forest Service officials indicate the railroad denied that its locomotive started the fire and claimed it was protected from responsibility.

Instead, the D&SNG apparently offered to pay $100,000. In June 2011, nearly a decade after the start of the fire, the Forest Service agreed to the settlement, “in order to avoid the uncertainty and expense of litigation.”

In July 1994, the D&SNG was on the hook for about $452,800 after a cinder cast from the train’s smokestack sparked the Mitchell Lakes Fire, which burned an estimated 270 acres about 15 miles north of Durango.The D&SNG, according to documents, denied responsibility for the fire, which kicked off a six-year legal battle. Ultimately, in February 2000, the railroad agreed to pay $400,000 for fire-suppression costs.

The Goblin Fire, again started by the D&SNG, burned more than 1,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest in October 2012. Two years later, the Forest Service sent the D&SNG a bill for $44,750 for firefighting costs.The D&SNG offered to instead pay about $15,000 for labor and air support costs. Eventually, the Forest Service said it would bill the railroad only for days of active fire suppression from Oct. 6 to 9, 2012.

The D&SNG agreed to pay $17,138 in April 2015.

In the early 2000s, the Forest Service billed the D&SNG about $123,000 for three fires: the Cascade Canyon Fire, Needleton Fire and Bridge Fire, which together burned a total of 172 acres.In 2004, D&SNG officials made a counteroffer to pay about $61,000 for all three fires, about half what the Forest Service initially billed. Both the D&SNG and the Forest Service settled on a $76,772 payment made in March 2005.

A similar situation unfolded in May 2012 after the Needleton Fire near Cascade Canyon. The fire was contained at about 6 acres, but the railroad was still billed about $21,615 for suppression costs.It appears the D&SNG and Forest Service agreed on a payment of about $15,600.

The Durango Herald requested similar reports from the Durango Fire Protection District, which often responds to smaller fires started along the tracks in La Plata County. The reports were not immediately available Tuesday, but Chief Hal Doughty said he expected to make the reports available later this week.

All this comes at a time when the D&SNG is suspected of starting the 416 Fire, which burned an estimated 54,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest, mostly in the Hermosa Creek area.

The most recent estimates for the cost of fighting the 416 Fire, as of July 31, is about $40 million. The Forest Service has yet to release an official cause of the fire, which started June 1.

Resident reports that the fire was started by a D&SNG train, however, have fueled intense speculation. Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG since 1998, was out of town this week. He previously said he is unable to comment on the matter.

Efforts to reach his son, John Harper, D&SNG general manager, were not immediately successful Wednesday.

The D&SNG invested heavily this summer in oil and diesel engines that are less susceptible to starting fires and will be used during times of extreme fire danger, Harper previously said.

Forest Service officials for the San Juan National Forest said Tuesday morning they were working on a response, but officials had offered no comment as of Wednesday morning.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Poll: Is it fair that taxpayers pay about half the costs of fighting wildfires started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad?

Yes - 835 - 38.5%

No - 1334 - 61.5%

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