State to fight area underground fire
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. The second will further examine the difficulties involved in fighting underground coal seam fires.The state will take a stab this year at fighting an underground fire that has burned in South Canyon since 1910 and sparked the destructive 2002 Coal Seam blaze.That wildfire destroyed 29 homes in the Glenwood Springs area.The Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology plans to seek bids from contractors to try to seal off openings and cut off airflow to the underground coal seam where the fire is burning.The Coal Seam Fire started when the underground fire ignited vegetation on the surface. High winds quickly drove the wildfire east to the Glenwood Springs area.After that catastrophe, the state did exploratory drilling in the area of the underground fire to get a better understanding of where the fire is burning and where there are underground vents and cavities.Steve Renner, project manager for the Division of Minerals and Geology’s inactive mines program, said the area has at least four collapsed mine openings in which air is still feeding the fire. The ground also has collapsed in a few other areas, providing additional sources of oxygen.Renner said he doesn’t have a cost estimate for the project. He said he’s thinking of having contractors propose ways of choking off the fire.”I’m sure there’s different methods, some more effective than others, and I’d like to be able to take a look at different people’s ideas before I award a contract,” he said.He said fighting the fire probably will be a multiyear project.The South Canyon fire is the largest underground coal fire in Colorado, Renner said. Statewide, there are 34 such fires. Eleven of them are in Garfield County, concentrated along the Grand Hogback stretching from South Canyon west past Rifle.Renner said the South Canyon fire also may be the most technically complex of the underground fires. At least three different mines were located on three different but overlapping coal seams, and at least two of the three seams are burning, he said.”You can spend an awful lot of money if you don’t know what you’re doing and basically not accomplish a thing up there,” he said.The fire also affects an extensive amount of ground surface, increasing the risk of wildfire.Renner said there are signs that coal seam fires have caused wildfires elsewhere in the state, but they’re generally in remote areas. The state is interested in fighting the South Canyon fire because of its proximity to Glenwood, and the experience of 2002.”I’m glad that the state continues to have an interest in trying to manage the situation,” said Robin Millyard, the city’s public works director.The fire is burning below city property. Millyard said another effort to seal vents was conducted many years ago. But the goal then wasn’t so much to cut off airflow as it was to keep people and animals from falling in, he said.Stan Rachesky, who lost his home to the 2002 fire, says the new effort is too late.”It’s kind of after the fact. I already lost everything I own, just like everyone else did,” he said.He questions spending money on the project when the state isn’t sure how best to fight the fire. He also thinks the city should be doing more to clear away brush at the surface to reduce the threat of another wildfire, and notes that the site has seen an outbreak of a thistle weed.The U.S. Forest Service did some clearing around the area after the 2002 fire and sterilized the soil to prevent weed buildup. Still, city parks superintendent Al Laurette said the fire created a perfect environment for weeds to proliferate.He said the city has spent about $10,000 in each of the last two years fighting the thistle outbreak.Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Mike Piper understands Rachesky’s frustration. But he thinks the Coal Seam Fire was the result of a rare set of circumstances that also involved prolonged drought and 65-mph winds. While the fire source remains, similar coal seam fires can be found elsewhere along the Grand Hogback, he notes.”I drive home and look at that whole Hogback burning in New Castle, and I don’t see anyone mitigating that either,” he said. “It could have come out of the ground and started there just as easily as South Canyon.”But it’s not easy to fight the fires, or even try to thin vegetation near them.”It’s rugged terrain, there’s holes all over the place,” Piper said. “You’re walking along and all of the sudden you’re sunk up to your knees in loose coal that had caught on fire.”It’s hard even to get machinery on site to clear brush, he said.The state doesn’t have the money to put the fire out altogether, Piper said.In addition, the fire is burning below city land in some areas and Bureau of Land Management property elsewhere.”Who’s problem is it? I guess it’s everybody’s,” Piper said.