Here, we share Railroads & Fire, originally produced for KFAI radio’s MinneCulture series. This audio story features Steve Johnson from the Hinckley Fire Museum and Jim Weatherhead, former State Rail Program Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. They offer a little perspective on this complicated relationship, past and present.
It’s an issue that warrants our attention. Advances in railroad equipment and management have reduced—but not eliminated—the potential for trains to spark wildfires. According to the Minnesota DNR’s Forestry Division, railroads are responsible for more wildfires than lightning. On a national level, a 2022 study published in the Fire Safety Journal found railroad operation and maintenance to be responsible for 3% of all human-caused wildfires. And while logging practices may have improved since the days of the infamous Hinckley fire, climate change is upping the ante. As University of Minnesota Forest Ecologist Lee Frelich notes, “Even with more rain, given the increase in extreme high temperatures, our analysis shows that evaporation is likely to outstrip increased precipitation; leading to a rainier, but drier climate. In addition, greater irregularity in temperature and precipitation could lead to longer dry periods, with most precipitation falling in a shorter period of time.”
Fans of native prairie can view train-sparked fires—at least, historically— in a positive light. For native prairies that once reached from western Minnesota across the great plains to the Rockies, train-lit fires (like lightning fires) were rejuvenating. Now, some of the last remnants of native prairie are still associated with railroad rights-of-way for a different reason: these narrow corridors often represent the only uncultivated, undeveloped land across large portions of the former tallgrass prairie landscape.
But even with an appreciation for fire-dependent natural communities like jack pine forests, oak savannah and prairie, these days it’s tough to find a circumstance where a train-sparked fire can be considered a good thing. Rail lines now crisscross the country through communities and neighborhoods, as well as pockets of wild lands where fire is best used only as a tool in carefully managed, prescribed burns. Minnesota alone has over 4,400 miles of track.
Smokey Bear doesn’t have much to say on the subject of trains and fire. (The U.S. Forest Service insists that his middle name is not “The” despite the song learned by a generation of children. Find Eddy Arnold’s great rendition on YouTube). The fire-prevention campaign slogan “Only you can prevent forest fires” was not aimed at the railroads. It’s understandable, to a degree, given the comparatively overwhelming percentage of fires caused by debris-burning and arson. But only to a degree. As we look to the skies and hope for rain, we’ll also want to keep an eye on the tracks.
“Wildfires are still part of the story of the railroads in Minnesota: since 1985, trains are reported to have caused over 2000 fires, around 4% of fires that required a response from the Department of Natural Resources, which does not include wildfires on tribal land or on federal lands, or the many smaller brush fires that local fire departments respond to.”
From Railroads & Fire