Coal seam fire

Coal seam fire
A coal seam fire near Denniston, New Zealand

A coal seam fire or mine fire is the underground smouldering of a coal deposit, often in a coal mine. Such fires have economic, social and ecological impacts. They are often started by lightning, grass, or forest fires, and are particularly insidious because they continue to smoulder underground after surface fires have been extinguished, sometimes for many years, before flaring up and restarting forest and brush fires nearby. They propagate in a creeping fashion along mine shafts and cracks in geologic structures.

Coal fires are a serious problem because hazards to health and safety and the environment include toxic fumes, reigniting grass, brush, or forest fires, and subsidence of surface infrastructure such as roads, pipelines, electric lines, bridge supports, buildings and homes. Whether started by humans or by natural causes, coal seam fires continue to burn for decades or even centuries until either the fuel source is exhausted; a permanent groundwater table is encountered; the depth of the burn becomes greater than the ground’s capacity to subside and vent; or humans intervene. Because they burn underground, coal seam fires are extremely difficult and costly to extinguish, and are unlikely to be suppressed by rainfall.[1] There are strong similarities between coal fires and peat fires.

Internationally, thousands of underground coal fires are burning now. The problem is most acute in industrializing, coal-rich nations such as China. Global coal fire emission are estimated to include 40 tons of mercury going into the atmosphere annually, and three percent of the world's annual CO2 emissions.[2]



Coal seam fires can be divided into near-surface fires, in which seams extend to the surface and the oxygen required for their ignition comes from the atmosphere, and fires in deep underground mines, where the oxygen comes from the ventilation.

Mine fires may begin as a result of an industrial accident, generally involving a gas explosion. Historically, some mine fires were started when bootleg mining was stopped by authorities, usually by blowing the mine up. Many recent mine fires have started from people burning trash in a landfill that was in proximity to abandoned coal mines, including the much publicized Centralia, Pennsylvania, fire, which has been burning since 1962. Of the hundreds of mine fires in the United States burning today, most are found in the state of Pennsylvania.

Some fires along coal seams are natural occurrences. Some coals may self-ignite at temperatures as low as 40 °C (104 °F) for brown coal in the right conditions of moisture and grain size. The fire usually begins a few decimeters inside the coal at a depth in which the permeability of the coal allows the inflow of air but in which the ventilation does not remove the heat which is generated.

Two basic factors determine whether spontaneous combustion occurs or not, the ambient temperature and the grain size:

  • The higher the ambient temperature, the faster the oxidation reactions and the greater the heat release inside the grain.
  • The larger the grain, the harder it is for the heat arising on the inside to be dissipated to the outside, i.e., the faster the spontaneous combustion. The poor heat loss is because the porous or crushed material usually has low thermal conductivity; it acts like insulation.

Wildfires (lightning-caused or others) can ignite the coal closer to the surface or entrance, and the smouldering fire can spread through the seam, creating subsidence that may open further seams to oxygen and spawn future wildfires when the fire breaks to the surface. Prehistoric clinker outcrops in the American West are the result of prehistoric coal fires that left a residue that resists erosion better than the matrix, leaving buttes and mesa. It is estimated that Australia's Burning Mountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000 years.[3]

Globally, thousands of inextinguishable mine fires are burning, especially in China[citation needed], where poverty, lack of government regulations and runaway development combine to create an environmental disaster. Modern strip mining exposes smoldering coal seams to the air, revitalizing the flames.

Rural Chinese in coal-bearing regions often dig coal for household use, abandoning the pits when they become unworkably deep, leaving highly combustible coal dust exposed to the air. Using satellite imagery to map China's coal fires resulted in the discovery of many previously unknown fires. The oldest coal fire in China is in Baijigou and is said to have been burning since the Qing Dynasty (before 1912).[4]


Before attempting to extinguish a near-surface coal seam fire, its location and underground extent should be determined as precisely as possible. Besides studying the geographic, geologic and infrastructural context, information can be gained from direct measurements. These include:

  • Temperature measurements of the land surface, in fissures and boreholes, for example using pyrometers
  • Gas measurements to characterize the fire ventilation system (amount and velocity) and the gas composition, so that the combustion reactions can be described
  • Geophysical measurements on the ground and from airplanes and helicopters to establish the extent of conductivity or other underground parameters. For example, conductivity measurements map humidity changes near the fire; measuring the magnetism can determine changes in the magnetic characteristics of the adjacent rock caused by heat
  • Remote sensing from aircraft and satellites. High resolution optical mapping, thermal imaging and hyperspectral data play a role. Underground coal fires of several hundred to over a thousand degrees Celsius may raise the surface temperature by only a few degrees. This order of magnitude is similar to the temperature difference between the sunlit and shadowed slopes of a slag heap or sand dune. Infrared detecting equipment is able to track the fire's location as the fire heats the ground on all sides of it.[5] However, remote sensing techniques are unable to distinguish individual fires burning near one another and often lead to undercounting of actual fires.[6] They may also have some difficulties distinguishing coal seam fires from forest fires.

Underground coal mines can be equipped with permanently installed sensor systems. These relay pressure, temperature, airflow and gas composition measurements to the safety monitoring personnel, giving them early warning of any problems.

Environmental impact

Coal seam fire

Besides destruction of the affected areas, coal fires often emit toxic gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and methane. China's coal fires, which consume an estimated 20 – 200 million tons of coal a year, make up as much as 1 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.[3]

One of the most visible changes will be the effect of subsidence upon the landscape. Another local environmental effect, can include the presence of plants or animals that are aided by the coal fire. The prevalence of otherwise non-native plants can depend upon the fire's duration and the size of the affected area. For example, near a coal fire in Germany, many Mediterranean insects and spiders were identified in a region with cold winters, and it is believed raised ground temperatures above the fires permitted their survival.[7]

Extinguishing coal fires

In order to thrive, a fire requires fuel and oxygen. Firefighting involves finding an appropriate methodology which addresses the interaction of these two factors for the specific fire in question. A fire can be isolated from its fuel source, for example through firebreaks or fireproof barriers. Many fires, particularly those on steep slopes, can be completely excavated. In the case of near-surface coal seam fires, the influx of oxygen in the air can be interrupted by covering the area or installing gas-tight barriers. Another possibility is to hinder the outflow of combustion gases so that the fire is quenched by its own exhaust fumes. Energy can be removed by cooling, usually by injecting large amounts of water. However, if any remaining dry coal absorbs water, the resulting heat of absorption can lead to re-ignition of a once-quenched fire as the area dries. Accordingly, more energy must be removed than the fire generates. In practice these methods are combined, and each case depends on the resources available. This is especially true for water, for example in arid regions, and for covering material, such as loess or clay, to prevent contact with the atmosphere.

Extinguishing underground coal fires, which sometimes exceed temperatures of 540°C (1,000°F), is both highly dangerous and very expensive.[3]

Near-surface coal seam fires are routinely extinguished in China following a standard method basically consisting of the following phases:

  • Smoothing the surface above the fire with heavy equipment to make it fit for traffic.
  • Drilling holes in the fire zone about 20 m apart down to the source of the fire, following a regular grid.
  • Injecting water or mud in the boreholes long term, usually 1 to 2 years.
  • Covering the entire area with an impermeable layer about 1 m thick, e.g., of loess.
  • Planting vegetation to the extent the climate allows.

Efforts are underway to refine this method, for example with additives to the quenching water or with alternative extinguishing agents.

Underground coal seam fires are customarily quenched by inertization through mine rescue personnel. Toward this end the affected area is isolated by dam constructions in the galleries. Then an inert gas, usually nitrogen, is introduced for a period of time, usually making use of available pipelines.

In 2004, the Chinese government claimed success in extinguishing a mine fire at a colliery near Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province that had been burning since 1874. However, a March 2008 Time magazine article quotes researcher Steven Q. Andrews as saying, "I decided to go to see how it was extinguished, and flames were visible and the entire thing was still burning.... They said it was put out, and who is to say otherwise?"[8]

A jet engine unit, known as Gorniczy Agregat Gasniczy (GAG), was developed in Poland and successfully utilised for fighting coal fires and displacing firedamp in mines.

Current research and new developments in extinguishing fires

Time magazine reported in July 2010 that less expensive alternatives for extinguishing coal seam fires were beginning to reach the market, including special heat-resistant grouts and a fire-smothering nitrogen foam, with other innovative solutions on the way.[2]

List of mine fires

Some of the more notable mine fires around the world are listed below.


  • Burning Mountain - a naturally occurring, slow combusting underground coal seam
  • Morwell, Victoria - the Great Morwell open cut mine caught fire in March 1902 and burned for over a month. It was extinguished by breaching the nearby Morwell River with explosives to flood the mine. The fire was found to have been caused by sabotage from incendiary devices.[9][10]
  • Hazelwood Power Station - a 2 km coal face in the Hazelwood open cut mine was set alight by a bushfire in October 2006.[11]



In China, the world’s largest coal producer with an annual output around 2.5 billion tons, coal fires are a serious problem. It has been estimated that some 10-200 million tons of coal uselessly burn annually, and that the same amount again is made inaccessible to mining.[4] Coal fires extend over a belt across the entire north China, whereby over one hundred major fire areas are listed, each of which contains many individual fire zones. They are concentrated in the provinces of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. Beside losses from burned and inaccessible coal, these fires contribute to air pollution and considerably increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions and have thereby become a problem which has gained international attention. But at the same time, some of the most intensive fire fighting activities worldwide are being undertaken in China. New quenching methods are being developed in a coal fire research project as part of a Sino-German coal fire research initiative.


In Planitz, now a part of the city of Zwickau, a coal seam that had been burning since 1476 could only be quenched in 1860. In Dudweiler (Saarland) a coal seam fire ignited around 1668 and is still burning today. This so-called Burning Mountain ("Brennender Berg") soon became a tourist attraction and was even visited by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Also well-known is the so-called Stinksteinwand (stinking stone wall) in Schwalbenthal on the eastern slope of the Hoher Meißner, where several seams caught fire centuries ago after lignite coal mining ceased; combustion gas continues to reach the surface today.


In India, as of 2010, 68 fires were burning beneath a 58-square-mile (150 km2) region of the Jhairia coalfield near Dhanbad. This region has been hit by the unique phenomenon of mine fires which started in 1916 and is rapidly destroying the only source of prime coking coal in the country.


Coal and peat fires in Indonesia are often ignited by forest fires near outcrop deposits at the surface. It is difficult to determine when a forest fire is started by a coal seam fire, or vice versa, in the absence of eye witnesses.[1] The most common cause of forest fires and haze in Indonesia is intentional burning of forest to clear land for plantation crops of pulp wood, rubber and palm oil.

No accurate count of coal seam fires has been completed in Indonesia. Only a minuscule fraction of the country has been surveyed for coal fires.[1] The best data available come from a study based on systematic, on-the-ground observation. In 1998, a total of 125 coal fires were located and mapped within a 2-kilometer strip either side of a 100-kilometer stretch of road north of Balikpapan to Samarinda in East Kalimantan, using hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. Extrapolating this data to areas on Kalimantan and Sumatera underlain by known coal deposits, it was estimated that more than 250,000 coal seam fires may have been burning in Indonesia in 1998.[6]

Coal seam fires are ignited in Indonesia by land clearing practices which use fire, often starting forest fires. In 1982-83 one of the largest forest fires in this century raged for several months through an estimated 5 million hectares of Borneo's tropical rainforests. A fire season usually occurs every 3–5 years, when the climate in parts of Indonesia becomes exceptionally dry from June to November due to the El Nino Southern Oscillation off the west coast of South America half a world away. Since 1982, fire has been a recurring feature on the Islands of Borneo and Sumatera, burning large areas in 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997–98, 2001 and 2004.[6]

In October 2004 smoke from land clearing again covered substantial portions of Borneo and Sumatra, disrupting air travel,[12] increasing hospital admissions,[13] and extending to portions of Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia.[14] Coal outcrops are so common in Indonesia it is virtually certain these fires ignited new coal seam fires.

New Zealand

  • Burnett's Face, West Coast
  • Strongman Mine, West Coast
  • Wangaloa, Otago[15]
  • Pike River Mine, West Coast
  • Millerton area, Stockton Mine, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand


In 1944 Longyearbyen Mine #2 on Svalbard was set alight by sailors from the Tirpitz on its final sortie outside of Norwegian coastal waters. The mine continued to burn for 20 years, while some of the areas were subsequently mined from the reconstructed Mine #2b.

South Africa

  • Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Collieries near Emalahleni (formerly known as Witbank), Mpumalanga has been burning since the mine was abandoned in 1953.[16]

United States

Many coalfields in the USA are subject to spontaneous ignition. The federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) maintains a database (AMLIS), which in 1999 listed 150 fire zones. In mid-2010, according to OSM, more than 100 fires were burning beneath nine states, most of them in Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia. But geologists say many fires go unreported, so that the actual number of them is nearer to 200, across 21 states.[2]

In Pennsylvania, 45 fire zones are known, the most famous being the fire in the Centralia mine in the hard coal region of Columbia County, which has been burning since 1962.[2]

In Colorado, coal fires have arisen as a consequence of fluctuations in the groundwater level, which can increase the temperature of the coal up to 300°C, enough to cause it to spontaneously ignite.

The Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana contains some 800 billion tons of brown coal, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 to 1806) reported fires there. Fires have been a natural occurrence in this area for about three million years and have shaped the landscape. For example, an area about 4,000 square kilometers in size is covered with coal clinker, some of it in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where there is a spectacular view of fiery red coal clinker from Scoria Point.[17]

See also

  • Darvaza (also known as "Gates of Hell"), a location in Turkmenistan with a burning natural gas deposit
  • Nothing but Trouble, 1991 cult film that takes place near a mine fire; partially influenced by the Centralia, Pennsylvania, mine fire
  • Silent Hill, 2006 film that takes place in a town affected by a mine fire (based on a video game of the same name)
  • Underground coal gasification


  1. ^ a b c Whitehouse, Alfred; Mulyana, Asep A. S. (2004). "Coal Fires in Indonesia". International Journal of Coal Geology 59 (1–2): 91–97 [p. 95]. doi:10.1016/j.coal.2003.08.010. 
  2. ^ a b c d Dan Cray (July 23, 2010). "Deep Underground, Miles of Hidden Wildfires Rage". Time Magazine.,8599,2006195,00.html. 
  3. ^ a b c Krajick, Kevin (2005-05-01). "Fire in the Hole". Smithsonian Magazine: pp. 54ff. Retrieved 2007-01-16. 
  4. ^ a b Rennie, David (1 February 2002). "How China's scramble for 'black gold' is causing a green disaster DAVID RENNIE reports from the coal fields at Ningxia, north west China, on one of the world's little-known environmental catastrophes". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  5. ^ J. Zhang, W. Wagner, A. Prakash, H. Mehl, S. Voigt (2004). "Detecting coal fires using remote sensing techniques". International Journal of Remote Sensing 25 (16): 3193–3220. doi:10.1080/01431160310001620812. 
  6. ^ a b c Hamilton, Michael S., Richard O. Miller, and Alfred E. Whitehouse. 2000a. "The Continuing Fire Threat in Southeast Asia." Environmental Science & Technology 34(February): 82A-85A).
  7. ^ Bergehalden im Aachener Revier
  8. ^ Is Beijing Manipulating Air Pollution Statistics?, TIME, 14 March 2008 (retrieved 17 March 2008)
  9. ^ "Coal mine fired by incendiary". The Advertiser. 1902-04-01. 
  10. ^ "A coal mine on fire". The Argus. 1902-04-02. 
  11. ^ "Massive coal mine blaze still burning". The Age. 2006-10-13. 
  12. ^ “Haze disrupts flights in Central Kalimantan.” 2004. Jakarta Post 17 October, 1.
  13. ^ “Haze thick over Kalimantan.” 2004. Jakarta Post 19 October, 1.
  14. ^ “Haze thickens in Sumatra and Kalimantan, affects Malaysia.” 2004. Jakarta Post 16 October, 1.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Sustainable Development in the life of coal mining in South Africa". The South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. 2005-07-13. pp. 3. Retrieved 16 January 2010. 
  17. ^ John P. Bluemle, North Dakota's Clinker
  18. ^ Laurel Run
  19. ^

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