A government lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court “corroborated” what dozens of Durango-area residents and businesses allege in a lawsuit of their own: that the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad started the 416 Fire, said Bobby Duthie, a local attorney handling the residents’ lawsuit.
More than 25 La Plata County residents and business owners are part of a lawsuit accusing the D&SNG of starting the fire after eye witnesses said they saw the train start the blaze and an independent investigation by two former fire investigators with the U.S. Forest Service found the train culpable.
“Fire experts have determined, unequivocally, that the cause of the 416 Fire was one or more burning embers, burning cinder-like material, and/or sparks that came from the coal-fired steam train at or around 9:45 a.m. on June 1, 2018,” according to the complaint filed in 6th Judicial District Court in La Plata County.
Al Harper, D&SNG owner, did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.
The 416 Fire ignited June 1, 2018, and burned 54,000 acres of mostly San Juan National Forest. Firefighters declared the fire extinguished Nov. 29.
Duthie, lead co-council in the local residents’ lawsuit blaming the train for starting the 416 Fire, said the allegations by the federal government and the accusations made by locals mirror each other, but many unknowns remain. Both lawsuits introduce evidence of the D&SNG starting fires in the past, and both seek relief from damages caused by the 416 Fire, but neither prove the train started the fire, he said; that’s for a jury to decide.
“There’s so much more investigation that still needs to be conducted to determine why the decision to run the train on June 1, 2018, was made by train management,” he said. “That hasn’t been answered.”
Each lawsuit will make its way through the court independently, but what happens in one case could be admitted in another, Duthie said.
“They’re (the U.S. Forest Service) interested in the same thing we’re interested in – that train management take responsibility for starting this fire,” he said.
A seven-week jury trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 14, 2020, in the lawsuit filed by residents.
“The train has been a big part of our lives. None of the plaintiffs, and I’m sure the Forest Services feels the same way, is interested in getting rid of the train,” Duthie said. “We’re trying to compensate people for the losses they actually suffered.”