Utah tries to put out 70-year-old underground fire

Nov 7 2011 - 9:29am

HELPER -- Utah officials are making a new push to extinguish an underground fire that has been burning in an old coal mine since 1941.

Louis Amodt of the Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project is overseeing the attempt to put out the fire burning in coal seams dozens of feet below ground near Helper, located 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

He told the Deseret News that while the fire at the old Maclean Mine in central Utah has never killed anyone or caused much property damage, it poses a safety hazard for hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Fumes deep in the ground remain deadly, Amodt said, and concentrations of carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide are well above acceptable limits.

Last week, state contractors moved in with heavy equipment and mixed sand, cement and foam into a type of grout. Plans call for them to pump 14,000 cubic yards of grout into the ground through drill holes and cracks in an effort to suffocate the fire by cutting off its oxygen supply.

The fire has been burning so long it has caused rock above to crack and shift, causing the blaze to be fed by oxygen from multiple sources.

"Before when we've injected some grouts, the temperatures (of the fire) have gone down significantly," Amodt said. "But then they've bounced back. So if we hit it bigger and harder, this time we hope we can surround the fire and hopefully extinguish it."

State officials have used a variety of methods to try to map a fire they can't see. Winter photos show isolated patches of ground where snow has melted, presumably from warming of the ground by the fire. Hot spots also show up in infrared photographs.

"We think that the fire is in smaller pockets," Amodt said. "It's not a continuous fire front."

The fire was first reported by miners in 1941 and forced the closure of the Maclean Mine in 1945. Officials believe the fire may have been started by spontaneous combustion.

No serious efforts were made to extinguish the fire until 1989 when it set trees ablaze. But the attempts to put it out over the last two decades failed.

The fire is one of about two dozen documented coal fires that have been burning for years in Utah. Also last week, Amodt's agency tackled an underground fire near Vernal using a similar process and believes that fire is now out.


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