Wildfire forces Durango & Silverton to furlough 150 employees

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DurangoWildfire
An approximation of the size of the 416 Fire near the route of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The extent of the fire is shown in pink. The narrow gauge railroad is shown in the hash-marked line, or railroad map marking through the center of the map.
U.S. Forest Service
DURANGO, Colo. — The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has furloughed approximately 150 employees because of the wildfire that has halted operations on the iconic Colorado narrow gauge railroad.

On Tuesday, the railroad announced that train service between Durango and Silverton, Colo., would be suspended until at least June 17. The railroad had previously hoped to resume operations on June 10. The announcement comes as firefighters continue to battle a 2,900-acre blaze dubbed the "416 Fire" in the hills near Hermosa, Colo., not far from the historic railroad’s tracks. More than 800 homes have been evacuated because of the fire that was first reported on June 1.

“It is the railroad’s sincere hope to recall these dedicated associates, and put them back to work, as soon as the 416 Fire has been contained,” general manager John Harper tells Trains News Wire.

Train operations were promptly suspended on June 1 when the fire was discovered 10 miles north of Durango. The two daily passenger trains were terminated in Silverton and the passengers were bussed back to Durango.

Officials say, if, and when operations do resume later this month it will likely be with diesels to reduce the chance that steam locomotive cinders ignite more fires.

“The [railroad's] alternative service plans call for the company to operate diesel locomotives until the fire risk in the San Juan National Forest has declined,” Harper says.

Fire officials say that the cause of the fire remains under investigation. However, on Tuesday night the Durango Herald published a report stating that people who live near the tracks saw the fire after the second morning train went by on Friday. One of those people, Al Chione, said he believed the fire was caused by a cinder from the locomotive.

Railroad officials have declined to comment on what caused the fire until the investigation is complete.

It is not uncommon for steam locomotive cinders to spark fires and over the years the Durango & Silverton has employed a number of fire mitigation tactics. A speeder with water and firefighting equipment follows every train during the summer to put out spot fires and the railroad even leases a helicopter to extinguish blazes. Earlier this year, the railroad was even honored with an award for its fire mitigation efforts from the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Forest Service.

This is not the first time a wildfire has forced the closure of the line to Silverton. In 2002, the 72,000-acre Missionary Ridge Fire, forced the railroad to suspend operations for 45 days.
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