BILLINGS – State officials say they plan to extinguish nine fires smoldering in underground coal seams in eastern Montana, including a 25-year-old blaze that sparked a large wildfire last year.
The fires are burning in the counties of Custer, Yellowstone, Musselshell, Powder River and Prairie. Two of the fires were confirmed last week and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality suspects more may be burning unnoticed.
The fires typically start where there are exposed outcrops of coal, a relatively common geological phenomenon in coal-rich eastern Montana. Depending on how much oxygen is available, they can smolder underground for years before being noticed.
The one that sparked a wildfire in Musselshell County last year, burning 1,700 acres of around the coal seam, had been smoldering since 1984, a DEQ official said.
“We’re not exactly sure how many are out there,” said Heather Luinstra with the DEQ. “We’re hoping that farmers, ranchers, property owners, if they see anything suspicious on their property they’ll give us a call and we can come out and investigate.”
Agency officials say putting out the fires by digging up the seams and dousing the coal with water and soil could help prevent future wildfires.
Efforts to extinguish the known blazes will begin in late spring or early summer.
Lightning strikes and wildfires are the main cause of coal seam fires. Others are started by people who use coal mine waste piles for burning trash.
“Most are from a wildfire. There’s a wildfire in the area, a tree burns, fire gets in contact with the coal and then the coal ignites,” Luinstra said.
Money spent on extinguishing the nine fires will be offset by savings from averted wildfires, said John Koerth, manager for Montana’s Abandoned Mine Lands program.
Putting out a coal seam fire generally costs about $40,000-$50,000, although that can vary greatly depending on the size of the blaze, DEQ spokeswoman Mary Ann Dunwell said.
Federal grants derived from fees on coal mined in Montana will pay for the firefighting efforts.
The program that doles out the grants, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation fund, would be phased out in some states including Montana under the 2010 budget proposed by the Obama administration.
Dunwell said Montana stands to lose $121 million over the next 12 years as a result of the phase-out, including money to fight coal seam fires.
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