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Fire in the Hole

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Author Topic: Fire in the Hole  (Read 153 times)
Lisa Wolfe
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« on: June 19, 2009, 12:00:49 am »

Generations of engineers and geologists have puzzled over how to fight these behemoths. “We’ve learned the hard way— total excavation is usually the only thing,” says Alfred Whitehouse, a geologist with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM). Last year, when range fires near Gillette, Wyoming, set off 60 blazes in coal outcrops, the federal Bureau of Land Management sent a helicopter to map hot spots, then used heavy equipment to dig out the burning fires. It worked. “Those fires are nasty little rascals. You can’t let ’em go,” says Bud Peyrot, a rancher who has bulldozed a number of hot spots on his place.

But extinguishing relatively small underground fires with bulldozers and backhoes is one thing. Dealing with firebreathing monsters the size of the one in Centralia poses an altogether different magnitude of challenge. Eastern Pennsylvania sits on the world’s greatest deposits of anthracite—shiny, hard, clean-burning, high-BTU coal in deep beds, squeezed and twisted by the formation of ridges like the one that rises behind John Lokitis’ house. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, miners reached the anthracite deposits through mazes of tunnels, shafts and gangways. If a fire got started in them, miners were usually able to extinguish it before it spread. Then oil and gas replaced anthracite as premier home heating fuels. By the 1950s, most Pennsylvania anthracite mines had been abandoned. Entrances caved in; tunnels began to fill with rubble. Later, strip miners with modern equipment came at the coal from the surface, but they could never reach it all. The result was a landscape of stony debris on top of leftover underground coal laced by interconnected airways—a perfect setting for a coal fire.

The Centralia fire probably got going in May 1962, when local sanitation workers began burning trash at a site over an old mine entrance just outside town, igniting the underlying coal. Over some 20 years, firefighters tried eight times to put it out. First they dug trenches, but the fire outpaced them. Then they attempted “flushing”—a process that involves augering holes into or ahead of a fire, and pouring down wet sand, gravel, slurries of cement and fly ash to cut off oxygen. (Flushing nearly always fails because of the difficulty of filling every pore space. In addition, because coal fires can exceed 1,000 degrees F, most fill material burns away, leaving more gaps. For both of these reasons, the flushing attempt did not succeed.) Next, state and federal geologists drilled hundreds of exploratory boreholes to define the fire, then dug a huge trench across its supposed path. But the fire had already spread beyond the trench. Some critics believe the digging helped ventilate the fire.
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