Ignited by embers from a coal-fueled passenger train on June 1, 2018, the 416 Fire burned 54,130 acres of the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado. By the time it was fully contained on July 31, it had become the sixth-largest wildfire in Colorado history. Although the fire briefly threatened the communities of Hermosa and Durango, nobody was hurt and no structures were damaged.
Still, the size and intensity of the 416 Fire dealt a huge blow to the area’s recreation-based economy and raised the potential for flooding afterward. These effects, in addition to large firefighting costs, prompted lawsuits against the Durango & Silvertown Narrow Gauge Railroad, the operator of the train that started the fire. Despite the economic hit and dire ecological predictions, tourism rebounded in Durango the following year, and researchers found excellent forest recovery in the San Juan National Forest by 2020. Litigation against the railroad is ongoing.
2018 Fire Season
Colorado experienced severe drought in the spring and summer of 2018. In June, the National Weather Service reported “well above normal temperatures” across the state, combined with “well below normal precipitation.” These conditions were similar to the 2002 fire season—the worst season in state history—when some 4,600 fires burned more than 926,000 acres across Colorado. The 2018 season saw some 1,500 fires burn more than 475,000 acres—the state’s second-worst on record.
Early in the season, La Plata County, in the southwest part of the state, was declared to be in “exceptional drought” and was among the hottest places in Colorado. In addition to the weather, the Forest Service noted, “mature timber and thick understory” in the San Juan Mountains contributed to heightened fire risk that summer.
Durango, the largest city in southwest Colorado and the La Plata County seat, was no stranger to devastating fires; in 2002 the Missionary Ridge Fire scorched about 73,000 acres north of the city, killed one person, and destroyed eighty-three buildings.
The burn scar of the Missionary Ridge blaze was still visible in May 2018, when the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad began another season of transporting tourists through the picturesque San Juan Mountains. The railroad, which once took gold and silver ore from the mines of Silverton to smelters in Durango, had been remade into a passenger line that was one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions.
Neighbors who lived near the tracks north of Durango had been concerned about the risk of fire since 2017, when consecutive seasonal droughts prompted them to clear their properties of fuels and look out for fires started by passing trains. The railroad, too, seemed to acknowledge the risk; in spring 2018, as its coal-fired engines steamed through the drought-stricken San Juans, fire crews trailed behind the vintage locomotives to put out small fires started by embers shot from the smokestacks.
On a hot and windy June 1, one of these embers ignited a fire about ten miles north of Durango on the west side of US Highway 550. Neighbors noticed the fire immediately after the train passed and tried to put it out, but high winds quickly pushed the flames beyond their reach. The conflagration was quickly named the 416 Fire, as it was the 416th incident (not all were fires) reported to the Columbine Ranger District in the San Juan National Forest.
Race for Containment
Two days later, the fire was at 2,255 acres and 825 houses were evacuated, with hundreds more on notice. Already, more than 200 firefighters were fighting the blaze, but containment was still at a modest 10 percent. About eight miles of US Highway 550, a major thoroughfare and gateway to the San Juans, were shut down.
Over the next three weeks, as unrelenting dry and windy conditions pushed the 416 Fire to more than 30,000 acres, responders focused on protecting the community of Hermosa, just north of Durango and mere miles from the fire. More than 1,200 houses were evacuated by June 7, followed by 750 more over the next several days.
By mid-June, more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the 416 Fire. Rainstorms over the weekend of June 16 gave crews a welcome reprieve and allowed hundreds of firefighters to be reassigned to other fires across the country; later that week, the number of involved firefighters dropped to 548. Containment reached 37 percent by June 21, with protective lines dug out to shield Hermosa from the blaze. By that point, firefighting costs had already topped $20 million.
A return of dry and windy conditions in July caused the fire to expand to more than 50,000 acres, though it no longer threatened communities. Crews achieved 100 percent containment by July 31; the fire itself was not extinguished until November 30, six months after it started.
As the 416 Fire burned, residents of Hermosa and Durango already suspected that the Durango & Silverton Railroad was to blame. When a Forest Service investigation confirmed as much in July 2019, the US District Attorney’s Office in Denver immediately filed suit against the railroad, seeking $25 million to cover the government’s firefighting costs. In 2019 a federal judge rejected the railroad’s motion to dismiss the case. In addition to the federal lawsuit, the railroad faces more than two dozen civil lawsuits from plaintiffs in Durango and Silverton seeking to recoup money lost when tourists were shut out of the area during the fire.
While the efforts of firefighters ensured that no lives or property were lost in the 416 Fire, the blaze’s ecological effects were tremendous. In July and September 2018, heavy rains washed ash-filled sediment down the Hermosa Creek drainage into the Animas River, resulting in an 80 percent reduction in fish population.
Meanwhile, rehabilitation crews began surveying the risk of floods in the burned area, which included steep slopes and multiple watersheds. Wildfires typically heighten the potential for severe flooding afterward because they burn plants and other material that would otherwise soak up water and hold down soils. Without plants and roots, soils fall into and raise riverbeds, making them more prone to flooding. After the 416 Fire, flood damage prompted the majority of civil lawsuits against the railroad. Loose soils also increase the risk of mudslides. Rains after the 416 Fire caused multiple mudslides that closed parts of US 550 for several days.
To guard against the threat of flooding in Hermosa, La Plata County and other local and state partners spent $7 million building catchment ponds and channels to collect excess water and debris and direct it away from properties and irrigation ditches. In addition, a local foundation in Durango raised more than $500,000 by the end of 2018 to provide relief for individuals and families who had lost income or were otherwise hurt financially by the fire.
Within the forest itself, researchers at Fort Lewis College in Durango were initially concerned that badly burned soil would stunt recovery, but a series of studies have since concluded that such soils comprise only a small amount of the burned area, and much of the affected forest is healthily regenerating.
Meanwhile, the Durango economy rebounded in 2019, with hotel occupancy reaching 90 percent during peak season and the Durango & Silverton Railroad taking about as many passengers as it did in 2017, before the fire. The railroad has since purchased ten diesel engines that it now runs in place of coal-powered locomotives during droughts. Local residents welcomed the change, which reduced the risk of fire and improved the air quality. Local support for the railroad remains high, though many residents want to see it adopt more eco-friendly operations in the wake of the fire.