A coal seam fire has been discovered burning underground 15 miles northeast of Dolores in the San Juan National Forest.
Forest Service personnel discovered the fire Oct. 9. It is burning along a coal seam just east of Forest Road 525 and has been active since summer 2018 when the Plateau Fire occurred.
“The seam is extremely hot and will continue to burn for an indefinite period of time, producing minimal amounts of smoke and a strong odor of creosote that will be noticeable,” according to a news release.
The ground around the coal seam is unstable and should be avoided. The fire will continue to burn underground as long as the coal resources exist, officials said.
A team of experts will gather data about the fire’s potential in 2020.
The area of the coal seam fire is about one-tenth acre, said Patrick Seekins, fire management officer for the Dolores Ranger District.
It is within the burn area of the Plateau Fire and has been contained below the surface. The fire is at the head of Beaver Canyon, west of the Dolores Norwood Road (Forest Road 526) and east of Forest Road 525.
No roads or trails have been closed, but roadside signs on Forest Road 525 warn of a nearby fire.
“When it was discovered, it was burning at low intensity above ground,” Seekins said. “A fire crew put out the surface fire in a little more than one day, but it continues to smolder and glow below ground,” he said.
How the fire started was at first a mystery, and further investigation revealed the previously unknown burning coal seam.
Water and foam were dispensed into fissures where the coal could be seen burning, but it just temporarily cooled the fire, Seekins said.
The area will be regularly monitored and patrolled to extinguish any fire that reaches surface vegetation.
Because it is in the Plateau Fire area, fuel around the coal seam fire has been reduced, and firefighters dug up the ground and cleared vegetation around the fire. Around the area are some ponderosa pines, aspen, oak brush, forest litter and dry grasses.
The area of the burning coal seam is about 30 yards long and 10 yards wide on an unstable 30-degree slope. Rocks and the ground near the seam are warm or hot, and there is some charred and charcoaled wood. Several small fissures in the ground have developed. In a deeper one, the coal seam glows red hot.
Occasional puffs of smoke are emitted along with vapors. Pink warning tape has been strung up between pine trees to keep people away, and a heavy coal smell is evident. Cattle are grazing in the general area, and hunters in trucks are passing through on a nearby road.
Hidden coal seams sometime ignite after wildfires, Seekins said. After the Weber Fire in 2012, coal seams were ignited on Menefee Mountain, south of Mancos.
Coal seam fires are difficult to extinguish because they burn underground. They usually burn themselves out once the flammable material is consumed, Seekins said.
Smoke from the burn is minimal, he said, and is only really noticeable at the site of the fire.
“The public should avoid the area,” he said.
Although the fire is burning underground, it may at times break through the surface and cause a vegetation fire. Anyone who sees active fire burning above ground in vegetation should notify 911 or call Durango Interagency Dispatch at 385-1324.
Putting out a coal fire, which can burn for years, is no small feat.
A recently extinguished fire in an abandoned coal mine on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation required excavating all coal that was burning or was hot enough to catch fire spontaneously.
Coal mine fires are caused when the inherently flammable coal, exposed through mining activities, is somehow ignited. Possible ignition sources include lightning strikes, wildfires, human activities and spontaneous combustion. Once sparked, the fire can burn as long as coal and oxygen are available.
For more information, call the Dolores Ranger District at 882-7296.
This article will be updated as more information becomes available.