The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway steams towards Cumbres Pass carrying passengers in this file photo from 2017. The steam train, popular with steam train buffs and tourists is dealying its opening for the summer season because of wildfire concerns. Steam trains often emit coal cinders that can potentially ignite and cause fires. The train runs between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Paul Davenport, The Associated Press

The commission that oversees a historic steam railroad in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado voted Wednesday to delay opening its operating season by nearly three weeks because of the extreme wildfire threats in the region.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad operates passenger trains on 64 miles of narrow-gauge tracks between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. The two states own the railroad, which provides an economic boost to a five-county region.

The commission voted during an emergency meeting to delay the opening from June 11 to July 1, when summer rains are expected to dampen the region.

Thousands of firefighters are currently fighting major wildfires in New Mexico, including the largest in the state’s recorded history.

Railroad officials expressed concern about potential devastating fallout if train operations were to spark a major wildfire, citing the possible loss of insurance coverage and being forced to reimburse firefighting and recovery costs.

“If we were to start a fire, I’m not sure we would be able to recover from that,” said Billy Elbrock, a railroad commissioner and a Chama village trustee.

Though delaying the season’s opening would deal financial blows to both the railroad and the communities that provide lodging to passengers, “we also realize that nobody is going to pay to ride through a black forest so that is part of the consideration,” said Scott Gibbs, a commissioner and the railroad’s interim president.

The railroad’s normal opening on the Memorial Day weekend was already delayed by work to restore its mid-line dining hall damaged by a 2021 kitchen fire.