Cumbres & Toltec steps up firefighting efforts

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A C&TS train climbs Cumbres Pass. This scene, in August 2008, was when the vegetation was more lush after the monsoon season started.
Trains: Jim Wrinn
CHAMA, N.M. — Amid tinderbox conditions across the southwestern United States, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic has stepped up fire prevention efforts in hopes of avoiding a shutdown like its neighbor, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

John Bush, president of the C&TS, tells Trains News Wire that the railroad has always taken wildfire mitigation seriously, but in recent weeks they have taken additional measures to ensure spot fires sparked by locomotive cinders don’t burn out of control. "We run an aggressive fire prevention program here,” Bush says. “Fire prevention is our top priority right after passenger safety."

About 100 miles down the old Rio Grande narrow gauge right-of-way, a massive wildfire north of Durango, Colo. has forced the D&SNG to suspend operations until at least June 17. The 416 Fire started on June 1 and exploded from 5,000 acres late last week to more than 16,000 acres over the weekend. No one has been injured and no homes have been lost, but more than 2,100 residences have been evacuated. As of Monday morning, more than 850 firefighters are battling the blaze.

Fire officials say that the cause of the fire remains under investigation. However, last week, a Durango Herald report stated that people who live near the tracks saw the fire after the second morning train went by. One of those people said he believed the fire was caused by a cinder from the locomotive.

Bush says the C&TS has offered to help the D&SNG in any way possible during the shutdown.

Bush says the C&TS has long utilized fire patrols to keep an eye out for spot fires and more than two dozen employees have received wildland firefighting training in recent years. Every train is followed by at least one speeder with a water pump and firefighting equipment. Additionally, in recent days, eastbound trains out of Chama have a second speeder following three to four minutes behind the first one as far as Cumbres Pass, the top of the grade, where the concern for hardworking steam locomotives spewing cinders is the highest. The railroad also follows every train between Chama and Cumbres with a pickup truck outfitted with additional firefighting equipment. Railroad officials are also keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts.

"If there was an increased fire danger — if there were extreme temperatures, winds and low humidity in the forecast — we wouldn't hesitate to cancel trains,” Bush says.

With trains at a standstill in Durango, some visitors to the region are turning to the C&TS, Bush says. A number of tour groups that were planning to visit the D&SNG have had to make last-minute reservations on the C&TS, requiring the railroad to add additional cars and locomotives to some trains.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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