Coal mine fire, dormant since 1954, to be suppressed, again

The Slagle/Bright Diamond coal mine northeast of Ridgway, Colorado (map) has been burning since the mine was abandoned in the 1930s. In 1954 an eight-foot thick earthen cap was spread over it in an attempt to suffocate it, and until recently there was little evidence that it was still burning. Now vents have opened, air has gotten into the mine, and smoke is coming out of some of the vents.

The Slagle/Bright Diamond mine is one of 34 active coal mine fires in Colorado. We have written before about coal fires (7 articles), and specifically about fires in Colorado and Montana. Montana recently began putting out nine coal mine fires.

The Watch has an interesting article written by Peter Shelton about the effort by the Inactive Mines Program of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to suppress these fires. Here is an excerpt from the article, in which Steve Renner from that agency is leading a group of heavy equipment contractors in a site visit prior to awarding a contract for capping the burning Slagle/Bright Diamond mine.


“This one looks underwhelming when you’re standing around kicking the dirt,” Renner said of the unassuming, 1.5-acre site. “But those big circular collapses? Those subsidences where the earth has caved in can provide oxygen to a fire. And then they can get very, very hot. Which leads to more hollowing out, more collapsing.”

And then you have a public health and safety issue. “Someone could fall through into the fire. Or it could start a wildfire,” he told me later. “And the hazard there is just infinite: in terms of dollars, firefighters, watershed damage, etc.”

Renner is Project Manager for the Inactive Mines Program of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. He’s a geologist by training. “But mine fires are kind of my specialty.”

There are 34 active coal mine fires in Colorado, he said on the drive up County Road 4. Most are within an hour or two of his office in Grand Junction. Many more have been capped and have stopped burning. Or gone dormant. The Slagle was given an eight-foot thick earthen cap in 1954, in an effort to suffocate it. But now it was back, the vents opening up, the fire breathing with new life.

The contractors were there for a pre-bid meeting, to research what they thought it would take in equipment and man-hours to suppress the fire. Again.

Renner, who is tall and boyish, with surprising white hair, led the way up, away from the pickups onto the hillside. The only remnants of the mining were a dilapidated “load-out” and off to the side a chinked log cabin with the glass still in its wooden window frames.

The first vents could have been big badger holes. But Christy Hulsman, with the federal Office of Surface Mining, warned me to stay back. “We don’t want a journalist falling through,” she said in a soft Kentucky accent. She’d only recently been transferred out West, to the Denver office, from her home state, where coal mines and mine fires are facts of life. “It’s got that smell,” she said, sniffing, unable to come up with a comparison for the sour stink. “It just smells like coal.”

Renner told the contractors that step one in the suppression job would be to fill the vents with dirt, by hand, “to try to choke them off, rather than just spread material over the top with a dozer.” Step two is to backfill the subsidence and vent features with big machines. Then they’ll need to construct a drainage ditch around the whole site and recontour and revegetate the surface.

How do you know a mine is burning without visiting every one of the hundreds of inactive mines around the state? Renner, of course, knows where all the old workings are. He flies around in a small airplane, in late fall or early spring when the snow cover is thin, and looks for “hot spots.” “Sometimes you see smoke,” said Ridgway’s Jeff Litteral, the project manager for the Slagle job. More often it’s just anomalous bare ground (warm earth) surrounded by white.


Peat Fires 101

Peat fires can burn up to 15 feet deep and are extremely difficult to extinguish. Russia, which has been plagued by peat fires this summer, constructed a 30-mile-long water pipeline from the Oka River to an area with peat fires east of Moscow.

The excerpt below is from a New York times article and is a quote from Guillermo Rein, an expert on smoldering subterranean fires and an assistant professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Smoldering fires, the slow, low-temperature, flameless form of combustion, are an important phenomena in the Earth system, and the most persistent type of combustion. The most important fuels involved in smoldering fires are coal and peat. Once ignited, these fires are particularly difficult to extinguish despite extensive rains, weather changes or firefighting attempts, and can persist for long periods of time (months, years), spreading deep (5 meters) and over extensive areas of forest subsurface. Indeed, smoldering fires are the longest continuously burning fires on Earth. The Burning Mountain, a coal deposit in New South Wales, Australia, has been smoldering since 4,000 B.C.

The characteristic temperature, spread rate and heat released during smoldering are low compared to flaming fires. Smoldering peat fires creep at a speed of 1 meter per day. Whereas flaming fires result in superficial heating of the soil, smoldering leads to sterilization and loss of mass above 90 percent (a layer of 5 meters is reduced to 30 centimeters). Moreover, these fires are difficult to detect with current remote sensing methods because the chemistry is significantly different, their thermal signature is much smaller, and the smoke plume is much less buoyant than the emissions from flaming fires.

Smoldering fires can be ignited by natural causes such as wildfires, lightning strikes, self-heating or anthropogenic factors, e.g., slash and burn, arson, mining activities or waste incineration. The most typical scenario for peat fires is when a fast flaming wildfire sweeps over a region burning the surface vegetation and igniting the peat if this is dry enough. The peat then smolders for a much longer time. This is what happens in Indonesia and probably what has occurred in Russia this summer.

Water content of the peat governs smoldering ignition. The depth and the area affected in case of fire are also be dictated by the water content of the peat layers. The maximum water content for boreal peat to ignite has been measured to be 55 percent by weight. Any water content bellow this means the peat can smolder.


Montana puts out 9 underground coal fires

excavating coal fire


As Wildfire Today reported in March of 2009, the state of Montana began at that time writing Environmental Assessments so that they could begin suppressing some underground coal fires. Usually putting out one of these fires involves moving a great deal of dirt, much like surface coal mining, so there can be a lot of paperwork involved. One of the fires in Musselshell County had been smoldering since 1984 and last year started a wildfire that burned 1,700 acres.


They have made a lot of progress since March of 2009. Here is an excerpt from a news release from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality:

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has extinguished nine underground coal fires in Eastern Montana since last fall with one more to go in the next two months.

The DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Program conducted the coal mine and coal seam mitigation project in Custer, Yellowstone and Musselshell Counties. Three fires were in the Shepherd area north of Billings; another six were in the Miles City area. The remaining fire is also near Miles City.

“Some of these underground fires may be out of sight but they’re not out of mind,” said DEQ Director Richard Opper. “The smoldering coal seams threaten wildlife, destroy ranchland and risk starting wild land fires. They also emit polluting noxious gases and carbon-dioxide. So it was important to douse these coal fires and eliminate the safety and environmental risks they pose.”

To mitigate the fires, crews excavate the burning coal seam, spread the hot material into a “quench” pit and mix it with soil and water to cool. The area is then reclaimed by backfilling the seam and revegetating the disturbed area.

Federal abandoned mine reclamation grant money paid for the project at a cost of about $805,000.

Coal seam fires are started primarily by lightening strikes. In addition, while coal fires can trigger wild land fires, grass fires can also ignite coal seams.

Here is a 23-second video showing a large quantity of water being applied to one of the Montana coal fires.


Underground coal fire in Colorado

An underground coal fire recently discovered near the western Colorado town of Silt is venting smoke and fumes through two holes in the ground. No damage has been reported and the temperature near the surface is not high enough to start a vegetation fire yet, but state reclamation workers began filling the holes with dirt this week.

In 2002 an underground coal seam fire started a fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado which destroyed some structures about 15 miles east of Silt.


Wildfire news, March 16

Montana to extinguish coal seam fires

There are at least nine coal seam fires burning in eastern Montana and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is seeking information about the possibility of others as they begin to put them out. The fires pose a threat to ignite above ground fires, like the one did in Musselshell County in January, 2008 which had been burning for 20 years. Another one last year ignited a fire in Big Horn County.

The DEQ will begin writing environmental assessments and they expect to put out the fires this spring and summer. The coal seam fires are sometimes ignited by lightning or wildfires.

Fires in Nepal creating problems

From The Himalayan Times:

A few days after NASA’s Aqua satellite caught a glimpse of large-scale forest fires in the mountains of Nepal, weathermen and health experts have warned of more wildfires and health hazards they pose for the public.

According to NASA, wildfires appear to be raging in or very close to some of the national parks and conservation areas, including Langtang National Park and Makalu Barun National Park, located along the northern border of the country. The forest fire raging in Langtang National Park in Rasuwa district for the last seven days is said to be the worst of all.

“There is no organisation to fight forest fires in Nepal,” said a senior official at the Department of Forests, “The department does not possess any special unit or team to deal with wildfires.” Unless forest fire surveillance and monitoring are carried out by satellite imagery it will be difficult to make a good assessment of the extent of damage caused by the forest fires.

He said, “Forest fires occur annually in all the major physiographic/climatic regions ofNepal, including the Tarai and Bhawar, the Shiwaliks or the inner Tarai, the mid-mountains, and the high mountains.” Forest fires rage during the dry season from February to June.

Ocala National Forest fire

The fire in the Ocala National Forest in Florida has burned 10,000 acres north of the Juniper Springs recreation area. Smoke jumpers assigned to the fire have traded their ‘chutes for canoes which they are using to access remote areas.

A “Scenic” fire in South Dakota

Fire near Scenic, SD. Photo: KEVN

On Sunday a fire east of Rapid City near Scenic (yes, there’s a town called “Scenic”) burned about 500 acres of private land near the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. KEVN has a video report HERE.


Wildfire news, October 14, 2008

See the post submitted earlier today for an update and maps on the Marek and Sesnon fires north of Los Angeles, California.

Bob Mutch receives the IAWF’s Wildland Fire Safety Award

Bob Mutch receives the IAWF’s Wildland Fire Safety Award from president Chuck Bushey at the recent “The Fires of ’88: Yellowstone and Beyond” conference.

From the International Association of Wildland Fire:

From his early days at what was then known as the US Forest Service’s Northern Forest Fire Laboratory in Missoula, Montana to his various roles within that agencies fire management program Bob’s distinguished 38-year career has continually championed both firefighter and public safety.

His involvement in developing the Fire Behavior Service Center concept in the early 1980’s further illustrates his active involvement and commitment to wildland firefighter safety. Even his very early work within the US Forest Service’s wilderness fire program can now be viewed as contributing significantly to firefighter and public fire safety, while at the same time helping to change agency policy and return fire as an ecological process to wildlands.

Following his agency retirement Bob continued his fire career as a renowned wildland fire consultant promoting wildland fire safety.

New Camp Pendleton Fire Forces Closure of I-5

Camp Pendleton, the Marine base about 40 miles north of San Diego, has been plagued by wildland fires over the last several days. Here is a report from KTLA:

A new wildfire is burning at Camp Pendleton, forcing the closure of Interstate 5 for 20 miles in both directions. CHP Officer Rob Sanchez says the freeway was closed once Tuesday morning, briefly reopened and then closed again after
winds shifted and the fire flared up.

A North County Transit spokesman says Amtrak and Metrolink trains are being held at Oceanside and at San Clemente stations.

Marine Cpl. Priscilla Vitale says it is not immediately known how many acres are involved in the new fire, but she says no structures are threatened.

It is the third fire to start on the base in two days. Vitale says two fires started Monday on the base’s training ranges; she says neither fire was caused by any type of military training. More than 3,000 acres have been scorched; there is about 25 percent containment.

An evacuation order for about 1,500 homes in Oceanside. A spokeswoman for the City of Oceanside says some residents have been allowed to briefly return to neighborhoods near the base to get their pets and collect personal items.

Marine spokesman 2nd Lt. Riley Whaling says an unknown number of families were evacuated Monday by military police from a housing area threatened by the fire.

The Juliet fire, named for the training area where it started, was reported some time after 3 p.m. Monday. It was not immediately clear how the fire started.

Whaling said a second fire was burning on the base in a training area. No buildings were threatened by that fire.

Update on the Angel fire in San Francisco Bay

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
An inmate fire crew mops up Monday after a blaze on Angel Island. The fire charred more than half of the island but spared scores of historic structures.

On October 13 Wildfire Today told you about the fire burning on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Here is an update, courtesy of the Press Democrat.

Firefighters working through the night on Angel Island brought the wildfire that burned more than half the island to 90 percent containment by Tuesday morning, a fire officials said Tuesday.

Photo from October 12.

Fire crews expect to have the fire fully contained by Tuesday evening.

Crews will be on the island for the next few days, making sure no hot spots remain to threaten flare ups.

What started the wildland blaze remains under investigation.

“We’re focusing on the area on the east side, where there was a campsite. We need to interview the campers,” said Kent Julin, a forestry with Marin County Fire Department.

On Tuesday morning there was little evidence of the conflagration Monday when flames swept over half the island, created a glow in the sky and filled the air above San Francisco Bay with heavy smoke.

There was no lingering smoke Tuesday as firefighters worked under clear, blue skies, Julin the bay just off the Marin County coast.

A force of nearly 400 firefighters saved the state park’s historic buildings from destruction.

Colorado: five homes burn near Hotchkiss

From the Grand Junction Sentinel:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A wildfire that started Thursday afternoon destroyed five homes and at least a half-dozen outbuildings on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss before it was fully contained Sunday, Delta County emergency manager Rob Fiedler said.

Fiedler said only three of the homes were occupied.

The fire was likely caused by humans, Fiedler said, and is still under investigation.

“We had eyewitnesses who reported seeing some human activity and investigators are still checking out all leads and running them down to check the veracity,” he said. “But it has never been considered malicious from the outset.”

With 45 to 50 mph winds pushing the fire early on, it spread from 80 acres Thursday, when 34 homes in its path were evacuated, to approximately 240 acres Friday. By Friday evening the fire was 40 percent contained. No one was injured in the fire, but it took the lives of one cat and three dogs.

Fiedler said air tankers from the Bureau of Land Management dropped flame retardant on the fire Thursday and Friday. More than 100 firefighters from all Delta County fire departments fought the blaze along with a 20-person hand crew from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.

The chance for wildfires still exists, Fiedler said.

“Things are still very dry below 8,500 feet,” he said.

West Virginia: Coal refuse fire

Wildfire Today has reported on two previous fires in coal refuse. Here is another one, courtesy of WCHS Radio 58. We are fascinated by these fires. They can pop up unexpectedly in surprising locations, they can cover many acres, they can burn for dozens of years, and they can be very difficult to put out.

(Glen Jean) — Firefighters say there’s very little they can do to stop a coal waste dump in Fayette County from burning. The gob pile caught fire about three weeks ago and has been smoldering underground ever since.

Mt. Hope Volunteer Fire Chief Shane Wheeler says the process probably started with spontaneous combustion after the area was reclaimed with a thick coating of sawdust, replanted with vegetation.

“Pressure over time caused the coal under that saw dust to catch fire,” said Wheeler.

The chief says there’s really no good way to put out the fire. Therefore the strategy has been to just let it burn within a set perimeter.

“The big hazard would be the ground giving way. You walk across it and you could literally fall into a burning crevice,” said Wheeler. “There’s been some cases where people have been killed trying to put them out, where bulldozers have literally been swallowed up.”

Some gob piles will burn for years. The biggest danger is when the fire reaches into the air and jumps fire breaks into the forest. Right now, the leaves are dry, brittle, and littering the forest floor. The gob pile fire is about 25-acres and Sunday it jumped into a nearby woodlot, taking out another 25-acres of woods.

Wheeler says the best they can do is continue to improve the fire line they’ve cut around the perimeter and hope it holds the fire to the interior.

Montana: Prepare, Stay, and Defend

On May 30 Wildfire Today told you about this concept being discussed in Montana. We just received a report from Alan Tresemer of Painted Rocks Fire and Rescue, one of the speakers at a conference where it was presented:

Just thought I’d update you on the presentation at the Idaho Wildland Fire Conference in Boise this week. Keith Harrap (Executive Director Ops/Support, New South Wales Fire Service) and I were the keynote speakers and covered the Australian Prepare, Stay, and Defend system for wildland fires. Idaho State Lands really is ahead of the pack on this.

About a month ago, Steve Kimball sent out the Tasmanian “Bushfire” DVD to all fire chiefs and county commissions, so the audience was primed to hear the details. Keith covered the big picture of how Australia has dealt with the issue and their great success at reducing deaths, injuries, and loss of property by preparing homes (FireWise) and having people stay at home to keep their homes from burning. I related our fire company’s success at implementing this system in our small Montana community of Painted Rocks. There were around 250 attendees representing the bulk of Idaho’s fire services.

The message was very well received and Idaho is on its way to finding better ways of protecting its communities. Idaho Lands really deserves a pat on the back for their proactive efforts.

Alan Tresemer
Batt. Chief
Painted Rocks Fire & Rescue, Montana

Thanks Alan–we’re glad it went well. We used to call it “Shelter in Place”, but Prepare, Stay, and Defend is a better term.