This Is the One Colorado Fire That Snow Can't Extinguish

An overhead view of last summer's Plateau Fire, which sparked the current underground conflagration.
An overhead view of last summer's Plateau Fire, which sparked the current underground conflagration.

Winter weather has been doing its part to mitigate wildfires in Colorado. Take the 8,000-acre-plus Decker fire south of Salida, which went from 30 percent containment a couple of weeks back to 100 percent as a result of recent snowfalls. But there's one big exception to this rule: the Coal Seam fire, in southwestern Colorado.

Why? The fire is actually underground rather than on the surface of the San Juan National Forest, located not far from Durango. Firefighters believe that it had been burning for more than a year when it was discovered earlier this month, and trace its source to another flare-up, the Plateau fire, which was largely extinguished back in August 2018. And there's no telling how long it might take for the Coal Seam fire to exhaust itself.

"It could burn for years," acknowledges Patrick Seekins, fire management officer for the Dolores Ranger District, the local agency assigned to deal with the matter. "I've heard about coal seam fires across the nation that have gone on for that long. It's pretty crazy. And there are a lot of unknowns."

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If the Coal Seam fire bursts through the earth and sets plants and the like ablaze, as it's already done once so far, will firefighters be able to battle it safely? Or might they accidentally fall through the top layer of soil onto the ultra-hot coal, potentially causing severe injuries and leaving other crews without a way to know where they can situate themselves without risking the same fate?

Working the night shift on the Plateau fire.
Working the night shift on the Plateau fire.

The Plateau fire started at approximately 3:18 p.m. on July 22, 2018, in an area around thirteen miles north of Dolores; the cause is thought to be a lightning strike. It ultimately grew to a hefty 19,634 acres — large enough to be placed under the umbrella of the U.S. Forest Service. But by August 30, the Plateau fire was 95 percent contained, allowing crews from assorted agencies to shift into monitoring and mop-up modes.

Then, on October 9, Seekins says, "The Coal Seam fire surfaced and caused a small vegetation fire within the Plateau fire burn scar. There were some large cracks in the earth's surface, basically, and when our firefighters arrived on scene, they looked in the crack and noticed that it was burning underneath the ground. There were no open flames, but it was like coal burning — a red glow in the cracks where the hillside was exposed and sloughed off."

This is only the second time in Seekins's career (he's been on the job for around two decades) that he's encountered a coal seam fire. The previous one "was about twenty miles away from this area, in the Menefee mountain range on BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land. It surfaced three years ago, after a larger wildfire in 2012, and it's still undetermined if it's still burning or how long it might burn."

A map of the area where the underground fire is burning.EXPAND
A map of the area where the underground fire is burning.

The latest mystery appears to be following a similar course. "There were no immediate records of a coal seam existing in the area," he continues, "and so we're going to bring in a team of experts to determine how deep and how long the coal seam is and assess conditions throughout the next year."

Those experts are booked so solidly that they won't be able to make their analysis until some point in 2020. Until then, local firefighters are playing a waiting game.

According to Seekins, "the complications with coal seam fires is there's really no safe, logical way to put them out. You'd have to bring in excavators and do a lot of ground-disturbing — and it's kind of an unstable piece of ground to work on, so it's not really worth the risk. Usually, a coal seam fire doesn't cause any risk to the public except for unstable ground, which could cave in" — though visitors might notice the occasional puff of smoke and smell of creosote.

The couple of acres where the fire was spotted are now flagged off and festooned with warning signs, and if more instability or ground fires are spotted, the area could be expanded. In the meantime, Seekins is hopeful that tourists won't have many opportunities to venture near the seam, since "it's not in a high recreation area. It's fairly remote, in between road systems and off the beaten path."

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