The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad plans to resume coal-fired steam engine service to Silverton on Thursday, after more than 40 days stuck in the depot.
“We are preparing to run on that day,” General Manager John Harper said Tuesday.
Harper said the train will work with local agencies and fire districts in the next couple of days to make sure they agree it is safe to run coal-fired engines, which are known for sending off cinders and starting small fires.
On Wednesday, La Plata County commissioners will discuss whether to downgrade current Stage 3 fire restrictions, which ban the use of coal-fired steam engines. Lowering fire restrictions would effectively allow D&SNG officials to decide whether it’s safe to run coal-fired engines.
However, there’s no guarantee commissioners will ease fire restrictions. On June 21, for instance, commissioners turned down a request to downgrade to Stage 2 restrictions, arguing the extreme fire danger had not diminished as a result of one weekend of storms.
County commissioners were in a meeting Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.
La Plata County did grant the railroad permission Tuesday to take the train back to Durango from Silverton to prepare for a possible reopening Thursday.
The D&SNG shut down service June 1 – the day the 416 Fire broke out – to lower the risk of additional wildfires. The Harper family has assured the public that coal-fired engines would not run until rains relieved drought conditions.
Southwest Colorado received some rain over the past few days, but not enough to reverse the extreme fire danger. The U.S. Drought Monitor still lists the region in an “exceptional drought” – the highest and most dangerous drought category.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said rain across the area has been spotty and inconsistent. As a result, the Forest Service won’t downgrade any fire restrictions until more precipitation arrives.
The San Juan National Forest is currently under Stage 2 restrictions.
Rains predicted for later this week, however, could change that. The National Weather Service has even issued a flash-flood watch for Southwest Colorado for Wednesday and Thursday, with the chance of rain continuing into the weekend.
“Basically, we’re going to wait and see what the rain does,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve all got our fingers crossed.”
Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty, however, said he feels comfortable with lowering fire restrictions.
“We believe the weather forecast shows it’s likely we’ll continue to get rain showers the next several days,” he said.
The D&SNG’s Harper said the train has implemented a few new measures over the past month aimed at reducing the risk of wildfire.
The D&SNG recently entered a contract with the Durango Fire Protection District to have a fire truck follow the train between Durango and Rockwood, if conditions are exceptionally dry.
On Tuesday, crews with the fire protection district started clearing brush and building fire lines along the D&SNG’s right-of-way to prevent sparks from the train from starting fires.
The D&SNG’s preventive measures that were already in place – namely the pop cars that follow trains with the capability to douse flames and an on-call helicopter – will also be available.
While the cause of the 416 Fire is under investigation, witness accounts from neighbors adjacent to where the fire started say a cinder from the train started the wildfire.
The 416 Fire has burned more than 54,000 acres, forced thousands of evacuations and caused deep economic impacts in Southwest Colorado. The fire also closed down U.S. Highway 550 for multiple days and was part of the reason the San Juan National Forest was closed for the first time ever.
Harper said the D&SNG has had to cancel 40,000 passenger rides. In the month of June alone, Harper estimated the closure of the railroad caused an economic loss of about $33 million to the area.
The D&SNG was also forced to furlough 150 employees. Harper said half of those people have been hired back, and the other half found new jobs. The train, as a result, will hire about 75 new employees.
Just because coal-fired trains may be running doesn’t mean the area will see an instant and dramatic turnaround, Harper said.
For the month of July, the D&SNG is down 60 percent for future reservations and about 30 percent for August.
Harper said the D&SNG took years to recover its ridership after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
“It’ll be a very slow progression to get ridership back to where it has been historically,” he said.