Underground coal fire flares up north of Silt
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
SILT, Colorado – State and local officials have been working this week to mitigate potential wildfire danger and air quality issues associated with a pair of new underground coal fire vents that flared up recently near Harvey Gap.
The vents are different from the old Harvey Gap mine fire that has been burning for decades, said Steve Renner, senior project manager in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Inactive Mines Reclamation Program.
Instead, the new vents are farther down on the south side of the Grand Hogback and west of Garfield County Road 237, which passes through Harvey Gap.
“For our purposes, we’re calling it the Grass Valley Fire,” Renner said. “We had not been aware of this fire until a couple of weeks ago.”
Nearby residents alerted officials to the smoke and irritating smells coming from the vents, and state mining officials visited the site located on private property.
“There are two large subsistence features, one that’s pretty open and another one that’s partially filled with dirt,” Renner said. “There’s a lot of smoke at times, but not a lot of heat at this point.”
Temperatures from the fire are only around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. Typically, a fire has to be burning at around 400 degrees near the surface to present a risk of wildfire.
However, the state was able to obtain emergency funds from the federal Office of Surface Mining to clear brush away from the vents and to fill the holes with dirt.
“We filled the upper vent yesterday, and will start filling the lower one today [Thursday],” Renner said. “Once both features are filled in we’ll start with clearing vegetation.”
The agency is working with the Burning Mountains Fire Protection District to do the fire mitigation work, he said.
In 2002, an underground coal seam fire burning near the surface in South Canyon ignited a wildfire that burned a large swath through West Glenwood and into the Flat Tops, destroying several houses and other structures in its path.
Garfield County Director of Environmental Health Jim Rada said he received a call about two weeks ago from area resident John Spangler, inquiring about the potential health implications from breathing the smoke.
Rada said burning coal does produce a significant amount of carbon dioxide and possibly some sulfur dioxide, depending on the sulfur content.
“At the source of the smoke there is more of a significant risk, but further away it’s not likely to be at dangerous levels,” he said. “It is an obnoxious odor, though. It smells like someone is burning coal in a fireplace or woodstove.”
The closest residences in the area are about a third of a mile away, he said.
Longer term, Renner said the state is exploring ways to control underground fires burning in various places beneath the Hogback. In the mid-1990s, a pilot project to pump foam into the coal seam was effective in some areas.
“In other places it bounced back,” Renner said.