Not since the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 has the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad been out of service for so long over the summer months.
The raging wildfire 16 years ago – which lingers in the collective consciousness of longtime residents as the most haunting natural disaster in recent memory – closed the train’s historic route from Durango to Silverton for 40 days.
“As we’re going through now, there was a lot of emotion and a lot of thinking deeply about what could cause another fire,” Bob Lieb, a La Plata County commissioner at the time, said Thursday.
The exact cause of the Missionary Ridge Fire has never been determined. Fire officials say that at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 9, 2002, a spark, the origin of which was never determined, fell on forest debris in a switchback on lower Missionary Ridge Road (County Road 253) north of Durango. The fire burned for 39 days, cost $40.8 million to fight, scorched 72,962 acres and destroyed 46 houses and cabins.
The Missionary Ridge Fire ended up costing the D&SNG about $4.5 million that year through cancellations and expenses incurred during the closure, despite the railroad running shorter routes with a diesel engine out of Silverton.
Owner Al Harper said the railroad and local officials were on the same page: The railroad had to suspend its service given the extreme danger of starting a fire concurrent to the one on Missionary Ridge.
“We always want to do what’s right by the community,” Harper told The Durango Herald on Thursday.
These past few days have almost felt like déjà vu.
The D&SNG has been closed since the 416 Fire started June 1. The blaze, far from over, had consumed about 33,000 acres, mostly on the San Juan National Forest, as of Friday morning, and no structures had been destroyed. Officials expect the fire won’t be contained until the monsoon arrives sometime in July.
Harper estimated that when all is said and done this year, the railroad could be out $6 million from cancellations and expenses. The train has furloughed 150 employees.
“It’s been a serious strain,” Harper said.
Since the outbreak of the 416 Fire, days of speculation, fueled by witness accounts, have blamed the coal-fired locomotive, known for sending out hot cinders that fall on the ground and start small burns, as the cause of the fire.
Investigators for the U.S. Forest Service, however, have not yet released an official cause because it is still being investigated.
“A team of trained investigators was on scene as soon as (June 1), the day of ignition,” Forest Service spokeswoman Cam Hooley said previously. “Because of the size of the fire, the cost of suppression and the impact on the community, the investigation team will take the time needed to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation before any determinations are released.”
Harper, for his part, is aware of the possibility the train may be at fault. Although he has heard of other possible causes, Harper said he and his family, who have owned the railroad since 1998, won’t shrink from responsibility.
“This is our home,” Harper said. “No one feels worse about what’s going on than I do.”
The railroad has preventive measures in place for forest fires. Pop cars follow each train about three to five minutes behind to look for fires, followed by a water tender that can put out flames. The railroad also leases a helicopter for $140,000 over the summer to monitor the tracks.
“We’ve never spared cost or manpower,” Harper said. “But sometimes providence teaches you that you need to do better.”
Harper said the past two weeks have prompted the railroad to enter a sort of self-reflection. Whether the Durango train started the fire or not, the railroad wants to ensure it poses no greater fire danger to the area in drought years.
“We’ll look at everything,” he said. “I don’t want this to ever happen again.”
The problem is, many options just aren’t feasible, Harper said. Solar power hasn’t been developed for trains, and federal rules say propane and natural gas-powered engines require a separation of five empty cars between passengers.
The diesel engines the railroad does own, Harper said, aren’t made for the long haul from Durango to Silverton. And, it’s nearly impossible to find or purchase a diesel engine for a narrow-gauge railway, which has a track smaller than a standard-gauge track.
The railroad is resolved to learn from the 416 Fire, Harper said.
The company may look into converting a standard-gauge diesel engine to run on the narrow-gauge track. But that could cost up to $4 million per engine, Harper said.
And, the railroad may clear brush and vegetation along its tracks with more frequency. In years past, the company has rotated areas it cleans on a three- to four-year basis.
This topic, in particular, was an issue from residents of the neighborhood adjacent to where the fire was reported to have started.
“If they did fire mitigation, ran smaller trains and used more experienced crew members, I think they could probably run (during extreme drought),” Al Chione, a resident in the Meadowridge subdivision, said in a previous interview. “I know a lot of people depend on that for their livelihood. But they’ve got to be responsible, and they’re not being responsible.”
Harper said the railroad feels it followed the proper procedure in the days leading up to the fire, which started on the first day local and federal government agencies implemented Stage 2 fire restrictions.
“We’ll question everything from top to bottom to see what we can do better,” Harper said. “We’re going to come up with long-range answers, but I can’t tell you what they are today.”
Because the railroad was created by land grants in the 1870s, it falls under the authority of the Surface Transportation Board and the Federal Railroad Administration. These agencies don’t have the authority to shut down the train because of fire danger but have some oversight of operations.
Joanne Spina, La Plata County manager, said the county has authority under Colorado state law to ban open fires, including the use of coal-fired engines, if there is sufficient evidence of high fire danger.
La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions Tuesday. The railroad had already voluntarily suspended its service. Harper said the train won’t run coal or diesel engines until at least Stage 3 restrictions are lifted.
The county can ban coal-fired engines only when there is a high fire risk, Spina said. Though it is unclear if the county has authority over the train, Harper said that it would never be an issue while his family owns the railroad.
Because the D&SNG predates the establishment of the San Juan National Forest in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service has no regulatory authority over the train, Hooley said.
Harper said he is aware of the conversation members in the community are having about the train. The conversation, much of which is highly critical of the train and its impact on the environment, has ignited an impassioned debate between balancing the dangers of coal-fired steam engines and the vital role the train plays in the local economy.
“Frankly, we need to be quiet until the Forest Service comes and answers what they feel needs to be done,” Harper said. “Then I’m going to respond and be open about it. There’s no question I’m going to work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Surface Transportation Board.