Experts Tackling Underground Fires

Experts Tackling Underground Fires

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John Hollenhorst ReportingOn a cold snowy day like this you wouldn't think anyone would worry about wildfires. But what if those fires are burning underground?

Thirteen fires in Utah have been burning underground for years in abandoned coal mines or in natural geologic formations, and this week state experts are launching a new effort to get them under control.

In some cases, the fires are smoky, smelly and ominous. Hot gases boil out of cracks in the ground, as if there's a direct connection to Hell.

The Smoky Hollow fire in Southern Utah started naturally. It's been burning in an underground coal seam for tens of thousands of years. In other cases, you can barely tell the fire is there.

State experts tackled one last year in Carbon County. It's 70 feet underground in an abandoned coalmine. They drilled holes and injected 7000 gallons of fire suppressing chemicals.

Mark Mesch, Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program: "These mine fires are extremely difficult to manage. Extremely difficult to manage."

State officials eventually hope to extinguish all of Utah's 13 underground fires. That's because they emit toxic chemicals, enough at Smoky Hollow to quickly tarnish brass rifle shells, and they present other dangers.

Mark Mesch, Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program: "As these fires burn they'll actually cause fracturing of the earth, exposing the burning fissures. It creates a tremendous health hazard and safety hazard."

The chemical injection in Carbon County did not work. The invisible fire cooled down initially, but in recent months infrared imagery has helped confirm it's revving up to it's old self again. The best guess is the chemical injection simply missed the most intense parts of the fire.

The biggest problem is firefighters can't see the fires they're fighting.

Mark Mesch, Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program: "It would help immensely to know where the hotspots are."

Infrared imagery is giving them a new way to get that information. Experts this week plan to visit two mine fires and scan them with infrared cameras. They reveal hotspots even better when there's snow on the ground. The infrared images will be combined with data from laser rangefinders and global positioning satellites.

Mark Mesch, Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program: "We can actually now develop a very exact map in an area of where all the vent holes in a fire are."

That should give them a reasonable shot at hitting their targets the next time they try to snuff out the Fire Down Below.

The state's Abandoned Mine Program is paid for with federal funds derived from a tax on every ton of coal.

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