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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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Posts: 4692

« on: June 19, 2009, 12:02:31 am »

Jones cannot say exactly where the fire is now—its perimeter is beyond the boreholes dug to define it. He believes it has crossed Big Mine Run Road, a short drive outside town, and is heading east. (A roadside sandstone cliff glowed cherry red for a while but now merely wisps steam.) Route 61, on the southwest limb of the fire, remains buckled and steaming; the state has created a detour through neighboring Byrnesville, also virtually abandoned, where just about the only landmark left is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, still maintained by the Reilley family, who no longer live here.

Some residents of nearby towns, such as Mount Carmel (pop. 6,389), fear the fire will reach them, but experts believe it will run out of fuel or hit groundwater before it does. Afew miles southwest of Centralia, two separate fires burn deep under mine waste near the village of Locust Gap. So far, the blazes seem confined to about a dozen acres, and it is hard to find surface evidence of them. Gary Greenfield, a geologist who works with Jones, says he doesn’t think either of them will reach any houses, but he admits that predicting underground fire paths is like predicting the weather. “I don’t think Locust Gap will become another Centralia,” he says. “At least not right away.” To the east, a fire has burned for at least 25 years near Shenandoah, opening fissures and emitting fumes, but so far causing no damage in the town itself.

Not all of the fires are left to burn; when a blaze threatens buildings or roads, OSM tries to contain it. And often when a new fire is discovered, firefighters may succeed in putting it out. Driving north on Interstate 81 from Wilkes- Barre in his pickup truck, OSM mining engineer David Philbin pointed out grassy spots where the agency replanted vegetation after a fire had been successfully extinguished. On the outskirts of Carbondale, he showed me his greatest triumph: the former Powderly Mine, where a fire of unknown origin broke out in 1995. The agency spent $5.5 million and seven years blasting and moving rock to carve a C-shaped trench 2,150 feet long, 70 feet wide and 150 feet deep. Philbin thinks the fire may burn another 20 years behind the trench but should eventually go out. “My finest moment,” he grins. “I’m the architect of this hole.”

Digging it was dangerous. Frontloader drivers carried emergency oxygen masks as they ripped smoking coal from the fire edge. The vertical walls of the trench could drop tenton boulders. Even now, as heat bakes and cracks the “hot” side of the trench, giant shards regularly split off. Philbin led the way down through a gap in the fence on the hot side, past steaming fissures and hot rock faces. At the base of the trench wall—where three of Philbin’s colleagues refused to accompany us—lay hundreds of tons of fresh rockfall. “Well, to outwit a fire, someone’s gotta stick his nose in,” he said, clambering over debris. In the trench walls were intact coal seams and old tunnel timbers that had not burned. “I like this,” Philbin said. “There’s adventure here. Some Sherlock Holmes. We think it’s contained. But of course a lot of people have been fooled by these things. Personally, I’d like to dig the whole thing out.”
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