Three-hundred and sixty-five days after that fateful day, the U.S. Forest Service has still not named the cause of the 416 Fire.
“It’s a shame we don’t have the results of the investigation into the cause of the fire,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “Our community deserves to know the cause, and we need to know so we can take precautions and prevent fires from starting in the future.”
On June 1, 2018, a small spark traveled up a hillside about 10 miles north of Durango, just off the train tracks for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Extreme drought conditions set the stage for what went on to become Colorado’s sixth-largest wildfire. By the time the 416 Fire was contained nearly two months later, an estimated 54,000 acres of mostly San Juan National Forest lands within the Hermosa Creek watershed had been consumed.
Firefighters mounted a heroic effort: Not a single person was seriously injured or structure lost in the blaze.
But the fire took its toll on the community, forcing thousands of evacuations, causing economic losses in Southwest Colorado and leaving behind a threat of potentially destructive flooding to homes and property below the burn scar.
The Forest Service originally said the cause of the fire would be announced in late fall 2018 or early winter 2019. In March, however, a spokeswoman with the Forest Service said the investigation was “taking longer than expected,” and there was no timeline for when the cause would be released.
The investigation, officials said, is out of the Forest Service’s hands and has been passed on to the U.S. Department of Justice. Jeff Dorschner, a department spokesman, declined to comment Thursday in an email to The Durango Herald, saying the case is “open and active.”
For many in the community, what started the fire is already clear.
About 9:45 a.m. June 1, 2018, a resident in the Meadowridge subdivision saw a “wisp of smoke” near a bend in the tracks as the D&SNG passed by, igniting intense speculation that the train was the cause of the 416 Fire.
The neighborhood of about eight homes a few hundred feet from the tracks had grown used to seeing the D&SNG start fires, and residents even had their own water truck to help put out small fires ignited by small cinders emitted from the steam locomotives’ smokestacks.
But their efforts were in vain that day. Even when the railroad’s own water tanker arrived about five minutes later, the fire had advanced too far.
“I’m a real supporter of the train,” Cres Fleming, one of the first Meadowridge residents to fight the fire, said at the time. “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.”
D&SNG owner Al Harper declined to comment for this story, saying he has been instructed by his insurance company not to talk about anything related to the 416 Fire.
In previous interviews, however, Harper has acknowledged the possibility the D&SNG started the fire and has said the railroad will take full responsibility if it is proved to have started the fire. But, he’s asked for patience in the community as the investigation continues.
“Frankly, we need to be quiet until the Forest Service comes and answers what they feel needs to be done,” Harper said previously. “Then I’m going to respond and be open about it.”
When that time comes is anyone’s guess.
Mark Stiles, who served as forest supervisor for the San Juan National Forest from 2002 until he retired in 2013, said that although he is unfamiliar with what’s going on in the 416 Fire investigation, there are many factors at play that can hold up the Forest Service announcing a cause.
The Forest Service treats the area where a fire breaks out like a crime scene, sending trained investigators along with first responders to do an initial attack. Experts collect evidence, study the movements of the wildfire and look for other indicators to determine a cause.
But determining the cause is only one component of a fire investigation and recouping firefighting costs. If a responsible party is identified, the Forest Service will prepare a billing statement, and it’s not uncommon for negotiations to begin.
“In my experience, when you submit a billing statement, especially to a corporate entity, then there’s a lot of back and forth between insurance companies,” he said.
Each fire investigation is different, Stiles said. But typically, every cost billed to the responsible party for fighting the blaze is scrutinized. That can take a lot of time, he said, especially if the cost of the fire was expensive.
Forest Service staff, Stiles said, uses its own judgment whether to release the cause of a fire to the public before or after negotiations are complete. Sometimes, it benefits negotiations to withhold that information to the public, he said.
“It can make it easier for the parties to work it out ... without muddying the process,” Stiles said.
Attorneys with the Department of Justice serve as the legal representatives of the Forest Service, who negotiate with a responsible party’s insurers or lawyers. It can take years, Stiles said, for the two sides to reach an agreement.
An open records request filed last year showed that in two decades’ worth of investigations into fires started by the D&SNG, it took years for negotiations to come to an end. In almost every case, the D&SNG hit back with a lower counteroffer, often denying it started the fire.
In the August 2002 “Schaaf II Fire,” for instance, it took the Forest Service nearly six years to bill the D&SNG about $500,000 for firefighting costs after it was deemed responsible for the 550-acre fire in the San Juan National Forest.
In 2011, nearly a decade after the start of the fire, the D&SNG instead offered to pay $100,000, to which the Forest Service agreed.
In extreme circumstances, Stiles said if federal prosecutors are unhappy with a counteroffer, they can decide to take the case to trial, but it’s not the preferred route.
“It’s extremely expensive, and you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be when you enter into it,” he said.
Chris Tipton, a fire management officer for the San Juan National Forest, said he was unable to comment about the specifics of the 416 Fire investigation. But he, too, asked that the community try to be patient while moving parts are worked out.
“The court of public opinion will always be there, but we have to let our processes work,” he said.
The cost of fighting the 416 Fire was an estimated $40 million. And already, a lawsuit has been filed seeking compensation for damages sustained during the blaze.
The Harper family has owned the D&SNG since 1998, and in previous interviews, Harper has said the railroad has been wrongly accused of starting fires. About six years ago, he said the railroad was blamed and publicly flogged for a small fire that turned out to be started by a group of hikers.
But residents in the Meadowridge subdivision are sure about what they saw that day. Al Chione, the first person to spot that “wisp of smoke” one year ago, and a self-proclaimed train aficionado, told the Herald in a previous interview he and his neighbors 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.”