Coal gives way to diesel as fire danger rises

The Durango & Silverton is purchasing two diesel locomotives at a cost of $3.2 million to use during times of high wildfire danger.

Non-coal locomotives to be used in San Juans when fire dangers ripen

by Allen Best

DURANGO, Colo. – Do you need steam and smoke to make a trip on a narrow-gauge railroad authentic?

That’s the question posed by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s purchase of two diesel locomotives. The company also plans to retrofit a third coal-burning steam engine to instead burn oil to be used when fire conditions are along the 45-mile route between Durango and Silverton.

It’s one small way in which the warming climate is modifying  how we live. This week the Los Angeles Times, with several giant fires in California underway and many more last year, reports that scientists have become willing to link fires in the West with the warming climate. See: The common thread in California’s wildfires: heat like the state has never seen. 

Several new books, including Edward Struzik’s “Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future,” warn that wildfires will become only more menacing in the decade ahead.

For 136 years, coal-powered steam locomotives have been chugging along the rails between Durango and Silverton, the one-time mining town. Since the mining era ended, the payload has been tourists, now up to 193,000 a year.

But the 416 Fire that erupted on June 1 along the tracks near Hermosa, about 10 miles north of Durango, caused the railroad’s owner to institute a change when fire conditions are high, as they were then.

Eyewitnesses claim they saw embers from the passing train create the fire at about 10 a.m. The Forest Service says only that the cause of the fire that burned 54,000 acres by late July is still under investigation.

Extensive fire mitigation work along the tracks had been done for the better part of a decade. Each departing train is followed by two fire-patrol motor cars that carry a water tank and fire pump. A helicopter has also been added to follow the train on its 45-mile run to Silverton.

Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, told the Durango Telegraph last week that the new locomotives being manufactured in South Carolina were what needed to be done. “We want to be good neighbors,” he said. Diesel locomotives do not spew embers.

One railroad enthusiast in Chicago, told of the change by Mountain Town News, expressed disappointment. He said the authenticity of the steam-powered locomotive was responsible for at least a quarter of the trip’s value.

Christian Robbins, marketing director for the Durango and Silverton, said polling conducted in previous years found that for a majority of customers the scenery is what draws them.

For 90 percent of customers, the steam-powered locomotives are not central to their interest. Fans of historical accuracy will be advised to plan trips when fire danger is low. The trains operate year-round, but 90 percent of business occurs from May through September. The trains to Silverton continue through October. During winter and early spring, trains go only about halfway to Silverton, to Cascade Canyon.

The train is an important part of the tourism draw for both Durango and Silverton. Robbins said the estimated impact is $190 to $200 million for the two towns. Robbins says the estimated economic impact to the two communities of the disruptions has been estimated at $30 million for June alone. July may have been disrupted just as much, he says.

The train had to cease operations for an extended period during the fire. Then mudslides resulting from the fire damaged the tracks, forcing abbreviated train rides.

But switching to diesel or oil-powered trains, even if just during periods of high wildfire risk, will require different marketing, says Robbins. Marketing materials in the past have emphasized the coal-fired steam locomotives. That will be replaced by an emphasis on other aspects of the train-riding experience.

Missy Votel, publisher of the Telegraph, says she thinks most locals see this investment in non-coal as a positive. “While people appreciate the train’s historic nature and the benefits it – and the Harpers – have brought to the community, this summer is one we’d all rather not have to re-live,” she says.

Colorado has three steam-powered locomotive tourist trains that burn coal. The Georgetown Railroad west of Denver winds from Georgetown to Silver Plume. Another tourist train, the Cumbres & Toltec, crosses Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet in the San Juan Mountains between Antonito, Colo. and Chama, N.M., daily during summer.

The Cumbres & Toltec has never caused a major fire in its 47 years of operation. However, as is common with steam railroads, very small fires have occasionally occurred, reports the railroad operator in a position paper. But these have been swiftly extinguished using fire safety measures. Each departing train is followed by two fire-patrol motor cars that carry a water tank and fire pump.

Also in southern Colorado, the La Veta Mountaineer crosses the Sangre de Cristo Range at La Veta Pass but uses diesel-powered locomotives.

Scientists now linking rising heat with more wildfires

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Los Angeles Times reports that scientists are starting to link rising temperatures and increased wildfires, something they were reluctant to do in the past.

“The regional temperatures in the western U.S. have increased by 2 degrees since the 1970s,” said Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “You’re seeing the effect of climate change.”

“Unusual warmth is now routine,” and that heat “leads to drying things out quicker,” said Neil Lareau, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Times notes the grim totals in California from San Diego to Yosemite to the Carr fire near Redding that has killed six people in recent days and what links these fires: extreme heat such as has never been seen in the modern historical record.

“The temperatures have just been almost inexorably warmer all the time,” said Daniel Swain, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Fires, he added, “burn more intensely if the fuels are extremely dry.”

Swain said there were alerts about record or near-record dryness in the vegetation just before each of the major fires of the last year.

In a tweet on Tuesday, he spoke to just how hot the Central Valley of California might get in coming years. Historical highs in the Central Valley, in places like Bakersfield and Redding, have been about 118 degrees, he noted. Given future warming, they might get to 125 degrees, he wrote.

But won’t increasing temperatures also bring more precipitation? In some places, yes, but Swain points out that Northern California saw its wettest winter on record in 2016-2017 followed by its warmest summer—and then the devastating Santa Rosa fire north of San Francisco.

“Temperature can clearly out-influence the precipitation,” he said.

For maps of  Western states for both temperature and precipitation  during July, see the Western Regional Climate Center.

John Abatzoglou at the University of Idaho was the lead author on a recent study that concluded human-caused climate-change was responsible for more than half of the increase in dry vegetation in the western United States since the 1970s. The area charred by fire has doubled since 1984.

Scientists point to the increase in nighttime temperatures. This means the chance of a blaze weakening overnight is reduced. In 1895, California’s average summer minimum temperature was 56.5 degrees. Last year, it was 61.9 degrees.


Allen Best