The fires beneath: Garfield County’s underground coal fires burn on
Deep underground in 14 abandoned Garfield County mines, coal deposits are burning, sucking oxygen sometimes hundreds of feet down through cracks in the surface and then belching air as hot as 600 degrees back up.
Out of 38 identified coal seam fires in Colorado, five of the six highest-risk fires are located in Garfield County, with the two at South Canyon at the top of the list in a recent report.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) is responsible for monitoring and fighting the underground fires, but that work can be frustrating, especially in South Canyon, where current technology can’t extinguish the fire.
At this point, the goal is to prevent the two South Canyon coal seam fires, which have been smoldering underground since the early 1900s, from spreading to an unreachable location or sparking a wildfire.
The best way to extinguish a coal seam fire completely is to dig it up, excavating down to the burning fuel. That’s just not possible in South Canyon, said Tara Tafi, senior project manager for DRMS.
“In order to excavate South Canyon, we’d have to take down the whole mountain. That’s just not even an option. We’re looking for something to stop its spread south,” Tafi said.
The two fires on either side of the canyon cover several acres, and are considered highly active. The east South Canyon fire was venting air between 551 and 678 degrees when crews took measurements in November 2018.
The fire on the west side of South Canyon was venting 500 degrees.
The South Canyon coal seam fire likely caused the most damaging fire in Glenwood Springs history in terms of property damage. A 2002 brush fire likely sparked by the hot vents spread across Interstate 70 and destroyed 29 West Glenwood homes. No one was seriously injured or killed in that fire.
Most of the coal seam fires in Colorado are along the Grand Hogback, which extends from Pitkin County through Garfield and into Rio Blanco counties.
The coal seam fires are somewhat unique because the angle of the coal seams and remote locations.
In the spring of 2020, Tafi will direct an abatement method on the South Canyon fires called a surface seal, which is like a big blanket meant to plug the oxygen intake holes and slow the fire’s spread. But that isn’t enough to extinguish the fire completely.
At the moment, the goal is to prevent the South Canyon coal seam fires from spreading to the south, deeper under the mountains and more difficult to access.
While Tafi and others try to prevent the Spring Canyon fire from spreading to unreachable areas, they are also trying to develop new methods that might extinguish the underground blaze.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s really interesting to try and develop methods that haven’t been used in this kind application,” Tafi said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that the coal seam fires have been smoldering since the early 1900s.
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