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Jim Duke | Author

Coal Seam Fire, Part 2

Referred to as the South Canyon fire in the first news report I heard, the Coal Seam Fire, as it was later named, was the most mis-reported fire in Colorado History. While it was the largest in the state's history, and there were twenty-nine homes destroyed, the news had made it sound even much worse than that. To the reporters and news crews who were kept at a distance, the smoke and flames engulfing west Glenwood neighborhoods presented the illusion of entire neighborhoods being in flames. Contrary to early reports, there were no deaths. It also turned out that the fire had been started by a fumarole located up South Canyon that exhausted a portion of an ancient, 100+ year old, underground coal seam fire. The name South Canyon Fire is most commonly used in reference to the Storm King Fire which occurred eight years prior to the Coal Seam Fire in the same area and which did kill fourteen fire fighters.

While this was all very reassuring when I finally received all this information, the initial news had already taken at least ten years off my life that no abundance of good news could ever replace for me. I don't think I ever fully recovered from that initial impact.

The fumarole that started this fire deserves a little background history. In the late 1800's, the coal mines in the New Castle area of Colorado experienced a huge coal more ways than one. These coal mines produced excessive amounts of methane and in 1896 the Vulcan mine exploded killing 49 miners. The mine was sealed off and flooded, but has continued to burn ever since. Subsequent effort to reopen the mine over the next couple of decades resulted in further explosions and dozens of more deaths before it was abandoned. A long swath of the geologic formation venting this underground fire is visible on the mountainside south of I-70 through New Castle, especially during cold weather when steam and smoke are often apparent.

As reassuring as it was to know that I had not caused all the devastation, it did not help protect my hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of equipment, improvements, and compost still at risk in South Canyon. While my compost facility was located between the fumarole that started the fire and the main part of the landfill, the fire had largely gone around my facility with little damage on site but there still remained pockets of fire flaming up around my facility. My 'fire break' clearing of vegetation around my facility to protect surrounding lands from potential onsite fires, had worked in reverse, protecting my site from surrounding flames. The landfill remained closed for several days after the main fire came through as fire crews worked to extinguish remaining hot spots. Having my own key to the gate allowed me to circumvent the fire crews that otherwise would have denied me access to my site.

On site I was able to rapidly extinguish any pockets of fire threatening my equipment, buildings and fuel storage, except for a large pile of wood wastes, mostly construction debris, stockpiled to be ground up for bulking agent. This wood had been stockpiled within what had been a sewage lagoon years earlier. Because I stored sometimes in excess of 100,000 cubic yards of wood waste, I had maintained a barren 'fire break' around it to protect surrounding vegetation. With no other sign of fires adjacent to the stockpile, it seemed to be an unlikely place for the fire to have spread to.

I had put out most of the spot fires using my large Linkbelt 310 excavator, digging and burying flames. This approach would not suffice for the huge stockpile fire. Without any water on site, I went to the extreme measure of pumping liquid sewage from a retention pond to fight the fire. I would not have attempted this except for the fact that the sewage sprayed on the fire would be contained within the historic sewage lagoon. Although the lagoon had been abandoned for failure to comply with stricter new regulations, I knew that the sewage would at least be contained on site and that regulators might be lenient in view of the circumstances.

As I began spraying this pile with sewage, I saw two flares fly over the ridge from the direction of the landfill and land in the middle of my site. One landed near my small, wooden office building and the other landed right next to my fuel tanks. Apparently, someone who didn't know my facility was located there was shooting in flares trying to set a backfire to protect the landfill! After taking care of the flares, I sped down the road to stop further backfire efforts where I was intercepted and scolded for being in an evacuation area. They agreed to stop any backfire efforts but weren't going to allow me back into my site. I told them I had two employees working on spot fires up there as well as all my equipment that I needed to protect, and whipped my truck around back toward my site without waiting for any approvals.

One of my employees had continued hosing the fire in my absence and had just run out of sewage without quite squelching the flames. The flames were, however, sufficiently reduced that it seemed slightly more reasonable to fight the remaining flames with my excavator. Although I was far less skilled as an operator than either of my employees, I knew this was too dangerous a situation to send anyone else into, so I hopped in and started trying to bury flames with soggy material. As I dug around the pile, I discovered that the old lagoon had partially filled up and I could dig a hole through the debris allowing me to scoop buckets full of liquid to sling over the flames.

This system was working very well and I was making good progress through the stockpile, digging one pothole after another as I moved forward fighting back the flames. Along the edge of the lagoon a couple of firefighters were shouting at me to get out of there and let it burn. Assuming they had probably started this fire in the first place with their flares, I wasn't in much of a mood to listen. Plus, I really needed this material for bulking agent and to let it burn would have kept my site closed for days longer only to reopen without sufficient material for processing. I was sure they weren't going to wade out through shit to drag me out of my excavator, so I pretended not to hear them.

Then I reached a point that I needed to push back a large smoldering pile that seemed to be mostly put out. When I pushed the pile back, it opened the heart of an inferno, almost scalding me in the cab nearly twenty feet away. The heat was so intense that it necessitated immediate retreat, especially because I suddenly realized that it was likely hot enough to melt hydraulic hoses. Shit! I was sitting in a molitov cocktail with a short fuse! In a panic and blinded by heat and smoke, I went full speed in reverse and backed right into one of the potholes I had just dug into the sewage, ending up stuck at about a 45-degree angle pointing skyward. My tracks were stuck, but I was still able to pivot and operate the backhoe to some degree, so I tried to reach something solid with my boom and bucket to pull myself out. Failing to find anything solid in the dug-up muck around me, I again started bailing buckets of liquid sewage at the flames that were encroaching back toward the track hoe.

At first this effort was still working, but the more I scooped and spun around to sling water, the more my tracks sank and I began to lose range of motion with my backhoe bucket. With the flames from that hotspot beginning to advance, I was finally about ready to abandon ship and give up. Looking for the best route out of this wood pile/sewage lagoon, I saw the firefighters waving and pointing upward as a giant helicopter pulled directly overhead and slurry bombed my excavator and me.

By the time I got over to the edge of the lagoon, the firefighters were gone without saying anything to my employees and we didn't hear from them again, although the next morning there was a copy of their daily fire update, a little newspaper type journal, left at our office door. On the front page was a picture of the excavator and me in the midst of a fire in a sewage lagoon being slurry bombed. The caption below the photo read "This Stinks!".

The slurry bombing had put the fire out and allowed us to get chains and heavy equipment close enough to pull my excavator to solid ground. Although FEMA had come along with various programs to reimburse damages and lost income and such, I was, as usual, not eligible for any of it, largely because, ironically, I had never really shut down. Apparently, if you want the government to help, you better not try to help yourself first.

At least the fire crew did save my excavator, although they might have caused the fire that almost destroyed it. I guess that, all in all, I came out almost breaking even. Except for that ten years lost when I first heard the news.