Al Chione loves to watch the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train chug past his house several times a day north of Durango.
But as a former volunteer firefighter, he is also keenly aware of the fire danger posed by the coal-fired locomotive during spring and summer. He tends to scan the tracks and surrounding mountains every time a locomotive passes.
It was during one of these scans at 9:45 a.m. Friday that he saw a “wisp of smoke.” He ran to the other side of his house for a better view, and by that time, there was no mistaking it – near a bend in the tracks was a fire, he said.
He told his wife, Bernadette, to call a neighbor and the fire department.
“I said, ‘This is a really bad one,’” he said.
Federal firefighters have not released the cause of the 416 Fire. A federal wildfire information database, InciWeb, lists the cause as “unknown.”
A longitude and latitude entered into the database pinpoints the fire just west of the train tracks in an area where nothing else is around. Chione confirmed that is about where the fire started.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not taking responsibility for the fire, but that could change based on the outcome of local and federal fire investigations, General Manager John Harper told The Durango Herald on Tuesday.
“We are working with the investigators to see what the cause is,” he said Tuesday. “There are three possible causes right now. Whichever one of the causes it happens (to be), then we will work with them to find a solution.”
Harper declined to elaborate on the three possible causes, saying he didn’t want to speak on behalf of investigators.
“We don’t know who or what started it yet,” he said. “It’s not that we will never take responsibility, it’s just that right now, because we don’t know the facts, we’re not going to take initial responsibility until the investigation process is finished.”
The U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Land Management are conducting the investigation, according to an email sent Tuesday from Cam Hooley, acting spokeswoman for San Juan National Forest.
“A team of trained investigators was on scene as soon as Friday night, the day of ignition,” she wrote in the email to the Herald. “USFS investigators include both local and regional personnel. 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. No timeline has been given for release of information.”
Chione and his neighbors often spot fires started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Meadowridge subdivision, with eight houses, sits only a couple hundred feet east of the train tracks and is located on a steep grade between Hermosa and Rockwood – an area known locally as Shalona Hill.
Locomotives work hard to power up the mountain, and some hot cinders from the coal-fired engine land on the ground and start little fires. A pop car typically follows each train three to five minutes behind the train to look for fires. Five minutes behind the pop car is a water tender that can douse flames, if necessary.
It is not unusual for the train to start spot fires through this section of track, Chione said. In fact, residents are so aware of the fire danger that they converted an old insecticide spray truck into a brush truck that can spray water to help douse the spot fires.
When he sees a fire, Chione typically calls his neighbor, Cres Fleming, who either walks down to the tracks to help extinguish flames, or if the fire is more serious, drives the water truck to the tracks to help douse the blaze.
On Friday morning, Chione told his wife to call Fleming and the fire department.
“I got a call on Friday morning after the second train had come by that there was a small fire at the bend in the tracks,” Fleming said. “I high-tailed it over there with the truck, and as I came up on the railroad tracks, I saw the fire was probably 35 feet up the hill from the tracks. The railroad patrolman was there on his radio, I guess letting dispatch know what was going on. The fire at that point was really too much for his small sprayer that he had on that first pop car.”
Flemming unraveled the hose on his make-shift water truck, but he had a water-pressure problem. By the time the hose was working, the fire had advanced 80 or 90 feet up the hill – beyond the reach of his sprayer.
“It was moving incredibly fast,” Fleming said. “I fired a stream of water and dragged a hose up the hill, which is hard for me because I’m not exactly young anymore.
“I feel sort of heartbroken that I just missed putting that fire out because I know it has really caused a lot of problems for a lot of people,” Fleming said. “If I had been there a minute earlier, I think I could have gotten it.”
The 416 Fire burned about 1,100 acres by the end of the day Friday and forced the evacuation of 825 homes and put another 760 homes on pre-evacuation notice. Since then, the fire has grown to almost 3,000 acres and 1,273 homes are on pre-evacuation, but no homes have been lost.
Evacuation orders are not mandatory. Residents can stay at their own risk. But if they leave the evacuation zone, authorities don’t have to allow them re-entry.
Fleming refused to evacuate. He said he is used to the threat of wildfire.
“We are not in imminent danger here,” he said Monday by telephone.
He described Friday’s firefighting efforts as “hectic” and “frenetic.”
About five minutes after the pop car arrived, the railroad’s water tanker arrived. But the fire had advanced too far, Fleming said.
Instead, firefighters with the train worked the south edge of the fire, and Fleming worked the north end. Their efforts left a “V-shaped” burn scar on the hillside.
Within 10 minutes, Durango Fire Protection District firefighters arrived. A short time later, two hot-shot firefighters arrived. The hot-shot members told Fleming to leave the area, because a slurry bomber was en route.
An air tanker arrived about 45 minutes after the fire started and made a low pass, leaving a red barrier between houses and the fire, Fleming said.
“I was in awe of the pilots that did that drop,” he said. “What these guys are doing is incredible.”
The second day brought more of the same, but on a greater scale, he said.
“They laid down about six loads of slurry,” he said, referring to the scene outside his house.
Day 3, or Sunday, mostly helicopters worked the fire, he said. A thunderstorm lowered temperatures and left a small amount of rain. Fleming called the storm a “disaster,” saying it brought turbulent winds that kicked up the fire, suspended helicopter bucket drops for a while, and pulled hot-shot crews off the mountain early.
“This time of year, you see a storm is coming, that’s bad news,” he said. “It’s not good news for the fire.”
The valley fills with smoke at night when the winds come off the mountain, he said. Interestingly, in the morning, he can look south down the valley and see a blanket of smoke envelope Durango, as if it were fog.
Fleming said he also loves the train. He called himself a “foamer” and “railroad nut,” who has done a lot of volunteer work for the train and played Santa Claus for a number of years on the Polar Express. He and Chione both said they live where they do because of the train.
“I’m a real supporter of the train,” Fleming said. “It pains me deeply to have this happen because I know it is going to hurt the railroad a lot. But I’m giving it to you like it is. I don’t want to shade anything, just state what I remember.”
Chione and Fleming said they have no doubt the train started the fire.
“Absolutely none,” Chione said. “If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t say a word. The bottom line is the railroad started it.”
Said Fleming: “The train has caused other fires in our subdivision in May. One of them we had to call Durango Fire and Rescue to put out a second time because it reignited later in the afternoon.”
Chione said the train hasn’t reduced fuels for several years through the neighborhood. It also hasn’t used a bulldozer to create a barrier, he said.
Harper estimated it has been three or four years since the railroad did fuel mitigation along that section of track. The railroad has 45 miles of track, and the right-of-way can be 50 to 300 feet wide. It can’t do fuel reduction every year along the entire line, he said. Instead, mitigation efforts are done on a rotation basis, starting near the south end and working north until it restarts.
Mitigation efforts this year were done five or six miles south of Silverton, he said.
“That’s the last of our mitigation, and then it would have come back and started in the valley and worked its way north again,” Harper said. “... We can’t mitigate that same spot every-single year because there’s 45 miles.”
Scrub oak grows quickly, he said, and it’s almost a constant process keeping it in check.
In addition to fuels reduction, the railroad has screens in locomotive smokestacks that help capture hot cinders before they are spit out of the smoke stack, and it has a sprayer system that constantly sprays water into the smokestack to minimize cinders and overall heat in the smokestack.
The railroad also spends $140,000 to lease a helicopter during the summer months to patrol the tracks.
Chione said he doesn’t mind that the train operates during an extreme drought, as long as it keeps up with fire mitigation and takes necessary precautions to prevent a wildfire.
“If they did fire mitigation, ran smaller trains and used more experienced crew members, I think they could probably run,” he said. “I’d like to see them run. I’d like to see them run every day. I don’t want to see them stop. 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.”
The railroad announced last week it will suspend all coal-fired passenger service through at least June 10, and on Tuesday, it extended the suspension through June 17. It also canceled its T-REX Express event, which was scheduled for the weekends of June 16-17 and June 23-24.
The D&SNG is considering launching limited-range diesel locomotive passenger service later in June once it is safe to do so.
Stage 2 fire restrictions took effect Friday, the same day the fire started. Some residents have asked why the train continues to run coal-fired locomotives during Stage 2 fire restrictions.
“In the future, if it’s Stage 2, or even if it’s Stage 1, maybe the option is to not run coal-fired steam engines, and there are other types of sources out there that we can still run the train,” Harper said.