Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney for the district of Colorado, filed a lawsuit against the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. on Tuesday for costs and damages from last year's 416 Fire.
That fire burned about 54,000 acres, primarily on lands in the San Juan National Forest for 61 days in June and July last year, though it wasn't officially declared extinguished until Nov. 29.
As a result, the federal government incurred about $25 million in suppression costs and damages, though the lawsuit does not specify what damages it is seeking.
While the fire did not burn any businesses or homes, more than 1,300 business owners and homeowners were forced to evacuate. It was one of the largest wildfires in the state's history, causing the Purgatory Ski Resort's summer operations, the railroad and the national forest to be closed for several months. The town of Silverton also had to cancel one of its major tourism events, its July 4 fireworks show, which draws thousands of visitors.
"The 416 Fire ignited on the morning of June 1, 2018, adjacent to a railroad track on which defendants operate and maintain a narrow gauge railroad line traveling between Durango, Colorado, and Silverton, Colorado," the lawsuit says. "Federal fire investigators determined that the 416 Fire was ignited by particles emitted from an exhaust stack on a coal-burning, steam train engine owned and operated by defendants."
According to the lawsuit, railroad engineers had placed a metal screen over the exhaust stack to capture burning particles, but the screen did not prevent all materials from escaping. At the time, the area was experiencing extreme drought conditions.
The lawsuit also says that this wasn't the first time the railroad caused fires, though none as large as last year's burn.
The Durango & Silverton line is a popular tourist attraction, and one of the state's oldest narrow-gauge lines.
Narrow gauge railroads, which are only three feet wide, were once the norm in the American West because they were less expensive to build. They have since been replaced with standard gauge lines, which are 4 feet, 8.5 inches wide.
In Colorado, there are only a few left, the most well-known being the Durango & Silverton line, and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad that travels between Antonito in the San Luis Valley and Chama, New Mexico, crossing the Colorado-New Mexico border several times. It, too, is a coal-fired, steam operated train.
The Durango & Silverton line was established in 1881 as the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to transport passengers and freight, primarily silver and other precious metals. It's been featured in numerous movies, including "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1956, "How the West was Won" in 1963 and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969, according to the railroad's website.
The train requires about six tons of coal and 10,000 gallons of water for a single 90-mile roundtrip.