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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.