Residents in north Durango on Monday were forced to put out a fire next to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks, just as the afternoon train rolled into town.
Karola Hanks, fire marshal for the Durango Fire Protection District, said the fire broke out around 5 p.m. near the intersection of East Second Avenue and 30th Street, on a grassy section between the railroad tracks and the road.
The fire quickly grew to about 50 feet by 10 feet as residents in the area attempted to extinguish the blaze with garden hoses, Hanks said. By the time Durango Fire arrived, it had been put out.
Hanks said a full investigation into the cause of the fire wasn’t conducted because of its relatively small size, and, as a result, fire officials can’t say with certainty whether it was started by the D&SNG.
“The train had just gone by ... but if it was a cinder off the train, that is a more in-depth investigation,” she said.
Dick Waltz, an attorney representing the D&SNG, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that the cause of the fire had not been determined and added “that a transient van was observed leaving the area after dumping their cigarette butts.”
Neither witnesses nor fire officials interviewed for this story noted the presence of a van dumping cigarette butts in the area.
Durango Fire Chief Hal Doughty said typically, a fire has to cause property damage or injuries to set off a full-scale investigation into the cause. But that didn’t happen with Monday’s brief blaze.
“When it’s a fire without a significant amount of loss, we don’t expend our man hours,” he said. “I understand (there’s a heightened awareness with D&SNG activities), but we’re not going to put significant resources to the cause of those fires.”
Milt Hunsaker, a Durango resident who witnessed the blaze, said two tourists taking pictures of the D&SNG were the first to spot the fire as the train passed. He and others quickly notified authorities.
“It literally started within a second of the engine going by,” Hunsaker said. “It was just like, ‘poof,’ and it took off.”
Hunsaker said by the time Durango Fire arrived, the fire had been put out by bystanders. Still, he expressed concern about what could have happened if the fire had started in a more remote location.
“If that happened anyplace else, where someone wasn’t there with a hose, it would have taken off,” he said.
Tim Tyson, who lives directly across the street from where the brush fire started, said he was in his house when bystanders knocked on his door, alerted him of the blaze and asked to use his garden hose.
Fortunately, he had enough extension for the hose to reach the fire, Tyson said.
“It would have been much more of an issue by the time (Durango Fire) showed up,” he said. “There’s nothing but dry brush and meadow, and there would have been a good, big hot spot.”
His wife, Stacey, said she is a strong supporter of the D&SNG, but expressed concern the train is starting fires, especially so close to homes.
“I get that we need tourists, but that’s not the point,” she said. “This is serious, and the train needs to take ownership.”
Witnesses and fire officials said a D&SNG pop car did not show up after the train passed by. Generally, a pop car with equipment to douse fires started by the D&SNG follows each train. Hunsaker said he didn’t see a pop car until after the next train passed by.
Waltz did not respond to follow-up questions asking why a pop car was not following a train.
Officials with Durango Fire did not immediately know how many fires started by the D&SNG have been reported this year. But, as the region dries out, Hanks said the fire danger is increasing.
“A lot of those fine fuels grew heavy this year with all the good moisture we had, but now we’re starting to dry out and we’re seeing fires picking up,” she said.
August has been relatively dry – a weather station at the Durango-La Plata County Airport has recorded 1.18 inches of rain this month, about 0.20 inches below the historic average.
As of Aug. 20, the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Assessment System has Southwest Colorado listed in the “high” to “very high” risk category for fire danger.
Still, no fire restrictions have been implemented by any local, state or federal agencies.
“We’re not seeing the science behind it that suggests we need to do that,” Doughty said. “The fires we are seeing are going out easily, and we’re not having issues with fires spreading uncontrollably. We’re in good shape so far.”
Doughty said the D&SNG has asked Durango Fire for crews for added patrol along the tracks from the Animas Valley up to Shalona Hill.
“That’s the area steam engines work the hardest to get up the hill,” he said. “And it’s the highest likelihood area for us to get fires.”
The D&SNG pays for the service, Doughty said, and has requested the additional crews because the railroad’s contract with a helicopter for aerial monitoring is about to run out.
“I think with everyone’s heightened awareness of train activity, it was important to the train to have significant fire protection coverage,” Doughty said.
After the 416 Fire last June, D&SNG owner Al Harper said he would run diesel or oil-burning engines, which don’t hold the same fire-starting risk as coal-fired engines, in times of high fire danger.
Waltz did not comment on if the railroad plans to start running those engines.
The Forest Service has determined the D&NSG was the cause of the 416 Fire, which burned more than 54,000 acres in 2018.
Residents in the Meadowridge neighborhood, north of Durango, tried to extinguish the spark for the 416 Fire but were unsuccessful. Residents in the neighborhood had grown so used to putting out fires started by the train that they invested in their own firefighting equipment, several residents told The Durango Herald last year.