Three Accidental Coal Fires That Have Been Burning For Weeks, Months, And Decades

CREDIT: Associated Press

In this Feb. 25, 2014, photo provided by the Incident Control Centre a fire burns at the Hazelwood Coal Mine at Morwell, Australia.

The fire at Victoria, Australia’s Hazelwood coal mine started started February 9, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Now, three weeks later, the state is telling children, the elderly, and pregnant women in the nearby town of South Morwell to leave to escape the smoke and ash in the air.

It began when grass fires, which are being investigated as potentially caused by arson, ignited Hazelwood’s coal seam, which is particularly close to the surface. Victoria’s fire service expects at least 10 more days of burning, as windy, dry conditions persist.

“We are now into the third week,” said Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr. Rosemary Lester, “and we know that continued exposure to the smoke increases the risk of bad health outcomes.”

A 2006 fire at the same Hazelwood mine burned for about 10 days and damaged parts of the coal plant that is supplied by the mine, interrupting some power supply. At the time, Environment Victoria called for it to be shut down. “Hazelwood already produces more global warming pollution per unit of electricity than any power station in the developed world. Fires in their coal pit just add to their record levels of pollution,” Environment Victoria’s executive director Marcus Godinho told The Age.

Though weeks is a long time for a fire to burn, Hazelwood’s is young compared to the coal fire in Simpson, Pennsylvania that’s been burning since December, at least. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t know exactly when it started, or how. But workers have been pouring over a million gallons of water on the fire a day and digging dozens of feet underground to find more burning coal. The whole project is expected to cost $2 million by the time the fire is extinguished, which will come at least in part from federal funds.

But Simpson’s fire has an even older neighbor in nearby Centralia, Pennsylvania, where underground coal has been burning for more than 50 years. It started in 1962 when the Centralia town dump caught fire just before Memorial Day. It spread to an abandoned coal mine, setting coal seams ablaze. The state and federal governments spent millions of dollars and nearly two decades trying to extinguish the fire, before giving up in the early 1980s, opting to relocate Centralia residents and abandon the town. Residents were paid to leave, and all but a few accepted. Now there are about 10 people living in Centralia, plus visitors eager to see the long-burning town.

Different counts list from 112 to 200 underground coal fires currently burning in 20 states across the U.S., and potentially thousands more worldwide. Their climate impact hasn’t been measured, but could be large. “It’s quite possible the emissions from these fires should be a significant part of the climate change models,” Dr. Glenn Stracher, a researcher at East Georgia College, told the Christian Science Monitor. “We just don’t know.”

Even if Australia’s Hazelwood fire was caused by arson, it spread with the help of Australia’s exceptionally hot summer, which brought an especially-devastating brushfire season.