Coal Seam Fires

Coal seams can burn underground for years. The fire can start in a mine or be ignited by lightning or human activity where the coal seam extends above ground.

Glenwood Springs, 2002

The dark green on this satellite image is the area burned by a wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which was started by a coal seam fire. This false-color image picks up infrared-light wavelengths just beyond the visible red we see. Healthy vegetation reflects a lot of infrared, shown on the image as red. Burned or bare ground (or dead vegetation) appears as green.

Courtesy of Space Imaging, Inc.    

Fire Down Below

Most of the world’s burning coal seams have been mapped and are monitored. Many start in abandoned coal mines when sparks ignite coal dust, gas, or trash. They even show up as abnormal hot areas on satellite images. "Hot spots" include Pennsylvania, India, Indonesia, and China. This New York Times article from January 2002 discusses the problem.

Coal mining takes out the coal layer, leaving pillars to hold up the "roof." If a fire starts and burns through the pillars, the mine can collapse. That’s what happened to this burning coal seam in Ningxia Province, China. Read more about it in this Environmental Health Perspective PDF from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (Adobe Acrobat Reader is required to view the PDF.)

Courtesy Dr. Anupma Prakash, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks