One Year Later, the 416 Fire Investigation Remains Open

May 27, 2019

June 1 will mark the one-year anniversary of the 416 Fire starting north of Durango in the San Juan National Forest. The fire burned 54,000 acres — an area larger than Mesa Verde National Park — and took two months to be contained.

But even with that one-year anniversary coming up, one question lingers: What started the 416 Fire? 

Some area residents are blaming the cinders of a coal-fired engine from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, even filing a lawsuit before the U.S. Forest Service’s investigation is completed.

Reporter Jonathan Romeo has been following developments on the investigation and the effects of the 416 Fire for the Durango Herald. He joined KSJD’s Daniel Rayzel to explain where the investigation stands and what could come next.

Interview Highlights 

On the wait for a conclusion from the U.S. Forest Service’s investigation:

The Forest Service treats wildfire investigations like crimes. They aren’t allowed to say much. All we know is that it is an open investigation that hasn’t been completed. And there’s really no set time frame for fire investigations, it’s really on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the cause is immediately known or sometimes it takes a few days. In other, more extreme circumstances, it can take up to a few years, and it’s really anyone’s guess when this announcement on the 416 Fire will come.

On local residents accusing a coal-fired engine from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad of starting the fire:

There were eyewitness accounts that we reported about, from residents in a neighborhood north of Durango, who witnessed a small fire start to climb up the hillside moments after the train went by on the morning of June 1. This has fueled intense speculation that the train did cause it. The coal-fired steam engines are known for sending off cinders that can spark wildfires.

Residents and businesses already are pitting this on the train and seeking damages, not only from the effects of the fire but also the flooding that occurred in July and September.

On how the $40 million in firefighting costs may be received by an accountable party:

We filed an open records request to find out just how much the train has paid in the past for fires it has started. We had a 20-year snapshot. During that time, the Forest Service had billed the railroad about $1.2 million. But after all the legal proceedings and all the legal fights played out, the railroad ended up only about paying half, the rest falling on the Forest Service and the taxpayer.

It took years, sometimes, for those fires to be settled. In one case, it was 10 years before the train actually paid. If it turns out that the train is the cause, we could be looking for a pretty long time before this is settled and done with.