Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

10 Dec 2018

Forest Service writes off over $500K in D&SNGR coal-train-caused wildfire costs since 1994

Posted by Adam Howell


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At least $572,186 dollars that was spent on fighting wildfires started by coal trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was written off by the USDA Forest Service since 1994, records from the Forest Service show.

A burning snag is being pounded with wedges. This is wildfire. Fire.

What this means is that after Forest Service officials determined the cost of suppressing wildfires that were started by D&SNGR locomotives, the original bill was negotiated to a much lower figure by senior D&SNGR train officials.

While the Forest Service billed the D&SNGR $1,195,265 dollars for putting out seven of the largest train fires since 1994, the company ended up paying only $623,078 dollars after bartering with officials for a lower cost.

Either way, the expenditure was significant, given that this money represents around 7,000 adult tickets to ride the train round trip from Durango to Silverton and back.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Marketing Specialist Christian Robbins has not yet returned my phone call with a voicemail seeking comments for this story.



FOIA request for train fire investigation reports

The Forest Service records came in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for fire investigation reports, billing statements or receipts provided to the D&SNGR for payment towards fire suppression costs for seven specific fires.

Altogether, Forest Service officials provided a partial response on Nov. 30th to the FOIA request that I made for Horse Gulch Blog in July of 2018.

Photo courtesy of Mark Arnold.

Records of the Schaff Fire were excluded from the Forest Service response, although they were part of my FOIA request.

A Fire Investigation Report and a billing statement for the Schaff Fire was not provided with the Forest Service response because it probably started on private lands, and as a result, the Forest Service did not have one, said Acting Region 2 FOIA Coordinator Dori Creamer.

Alas, it took the Forest Service 105 business days to respond to my amended FOIA request, which included a 15-day extension. FOIA law requires federal agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days. In this case, Forest Service officials chose to redact lots of personally identifiable information from the documents.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge employees lack basic wildland firefighter training

Coal-powered steam locomotives of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad cause wildfires on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, employees who work for the train have not taken basic wildland firefighter training to put to work on the firelines where contain and control strategies matter.

Specifically, I asked the Forest Service if they had provided NWCG training such as the S-130/190 Basic Wildland Firefighting class to any employees of the D&SNGR since 1994.

“The San Juan NF, Columbine Ranger District, has not provided any specific NWCG training for the employees of the D&SNGR,” said Acting Public Affairs Officer for the San Juan National Forest, Joni Vanderbilt. “A search through existing records indicates that D&SNGR employees have not attended NWCG training provided by the Columbine Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest.”

Without having basic wildland firefighting training, passing an arduous pack test implemented by the Forest Service, and obtaining a red card, employees of the D&SNGR will not be allowed to fight fires started by their own coal trains when they spread to national forest lands.

For example, on the Goblin Fire in 2012, Forest Service firefighters did not let employees of the train work on the firelines, according to D&SNGR employee Paul Schranck.

Moreover, letting a bunch of uneducated people on the fireline might create too much safety and legal liability for incident commanders.

In addition, the Forest Service would not let the train use its contracted helicopter to help with suppression efforts on the Goblin Fire, said Schranck.

I asked Vanderbilt if the forest service provides wildland firefighting training to helicopter pilots that work for D&SNGR or that are under contract with the D&SNGR such as Southwest Heliservices.

“The USFS National Aerial Firefighting  Academy (NAFA) training is available to all helicopter pilots, as well as agency and non-agency personnel, at the National Advanced Fire and Resource Institute in Arizona. The USFS does not contractually require the NAFA training for rotary wing pilots and the DSNGRR contracts their own pilots without input from the USFS,” said Vanderbilt. 
 
“Since 2015, the San Juan National Forest Assistant Fire Management Officer/Unit Aviation Manager has been organizing an annual ‘Safety Fly In’, a refresher of best management practices for aviation, which is open to local agency aerial resources, cooperators/partners and the D&SNGR contracted pilot.”

Forest Service relieves debts with variety of funding sources

Overall, the Forest Service has access to funding from a variety of sources for the cost of fire suppression and burned area recovery efforts that are not recovered from the party responsible for starting the fire, depending on the specific circumstances of the fire, said Acting Public Affairs Officer for the San Juan National Forest, Joni Vanderbilt.

In the same email, I asked the Forest Service if it was normal for them to help pay for the suppression of wildfires that were started by the D&SNGR.

 

“The USDA Forest Service works to protect the interests of the United States by following laws, regulations, and policies governing the collection, compromise, and settlement of claims for damages to the United States.  These authorities are set out in: 31 U.S.C. 3711; 31 CFR part 903.1; and USDA Forest Service Manual 6500. The USDA Forest Service Claims Branch has the authority to terminate, suspend, compromise, or discharge debts that do not exceed $100,000 in accordance with these authorities.  The ability of the USDA Forest Service to recover fire suppression costs, and other damages to federal property from wildland fire, is governed by both federal and states laws, and is dependent upon the specific circumstances of the fire and suppression efforts,” said Vanderbilt.

It is our agency policy not to publicly comment on our rationale for settlement and compromise of specific claims.”

Contrarily, it should be noted that the Forest Service terminated a debt from the train of $402,704 dollars for the suppression of the Schaff II Fire in August of 2002. If the Forest Service chooses not to publicly comment on the rationale for discharging this debt, then how do we know what authority they had to spend over $100,000 dollars on relieving the train’s debt for this one fire?

Does the Forest Service help pay for wildfires that its investigators have found other commercial activity or individuals to be responsible for starting, other than trains of the D&SNGR?

“The laws, regulations, and policies provided in response to the above inquiries apply to the recovery of claims against any entities for damages to the United States,” said Vanderbilt.

Fire Investigation Reports, billing statements and receipts provided by the USDA Forest Service indicate that the USDA Forest Service is helping to pay for the suppression of fires that were started by trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. How do you think that the general public feels about their tax dollars being used to help pay for the suppression of wildfires that were started by commercial activity?

“It would be inappropriate for the USDA Forest Service to speculate on this subject,” said Vanderbilt.

416 Fire by train tracks still under investigation

I made a separate FOIA records request on October 23 for the Fire Investigation Report from the 416 Fire that burned in the summer of 2018.

Originally, my request was ignored beyond the 20 business days required by FOIA.

It wasn’t until I called on Friday, December 7, 2018 that I found out that the Forest Service had a response letter written, but their attempted email with the document from the regional office had mysteriously failed to reach my inbox or spam folder.

I had not deleted the original email, but it had never arrived in my email inbox.

Fortunately, Acting Region 2 FOIA Coordinator Dori Creamer was able to send out the response letter to my email, and this time I received it.

This is the relevant part of what it said:

“The 416 Fire is still under investigation. We are providing you with a partial “no records” response because the final investigation report has not yet been written. We are withholding all other documents pertaining to the investigation in whole under Exemption b7(a) of the FOIA.”

Documents

Adam Howell is a writer who lives in Durango. He can be reached by clicking on this link to the contact page.



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2 Responses to “Forest Service writes off over $500K in D&SNGR coal-train-caused wildfire costs since 1994”

  1. This is some great research – seems like the herald piggyback’ed off of this in their December 12th article about the same info. Much more detailed info in here – just wanted to say thank you and please do another updated one and continue to share info with herald perhaps.

     

    Jeff D

  2. Thank you, Jeff. I’ve been looking for another lead to provide an update with. For now, the Forest Service has told me that the investigation into the 416 Fire is still open. What angle to take next?

     

    Adam Howell

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