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Lawsuit blames scenic rail company for starting Colorado's 416 wildfire

KATHLEEN FOODY
The Associated Press

DENVER — A company that operates a historic railroad that carries tourists through southwestern Colorado's mountains and forests was accused last week in a lawsuit of causing one of the largest wildfires in state history.

Federal investigators found that a coal-burning engine operated by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and American Heritage Railways threw cinders or other hot material onto brush near its track and started a fire on June 1, 2018, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn.

Flames eventually consumed about 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) of land near Durango, prompting evacuation orders affecting hundreds of people. Much of the damage occurred in the San Juan National Forest and on other federal land.

Crews declared the wildfire controlled in late July but it was not extinguished until late November. It was the sixth largest blaze ever recorded in Colorado.

Richard Waltz, an attorney representing the companies, declined comment on July 2.

Officials had not disclosed a cause of the fire before Dunn's office filed the lawsuit, which says multiple eyewitnesses told federal investigators that one of the trains passed through the area immediately before the fire began.

The train is a recognized symbol of the tourism-centric region, carrying passengers in bright yellow cars between Durango and Silverton as steam rushes dramatically from the engine.

In this July 13, 2002 file photo, a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train begins the climb out of the Animas Valley north of Durango, Colo.

The company says in its advertising that the railroad has operated for more than 130 years under various owners and now carries riders on a 41-mile route.

Residents and businesses have filed their own lawsuit against the railroad company, arguing that it knew or should have known about drought conditions that summer.

A statement released by Dunn's office said federal authorities estimated damage and fire suppression involving the blaze could hit $25 million.

"This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk," Dunn said in a statement. "We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf."

Firefighters used flammable plastic spheres dropped from helicopters yesterday to set backfires in the Clear Creek area the 416 Fire Division H zone on the western edge of the fire.
A firefighter is seen on the line of the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, in this undated photo posted by the 416 Fire team.