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Dennis Kurumada, Deseret News
Crews from the Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program are working to extinguish an underground fire that has been burning since 1941 near Helper. Temperature probes dropped into drill holes show it remains hot underground 70 years after the fire broke out. Picture taken Oct. 31, 2011 near Helper.
No one seriously tried to do anything about the fire until 1989 when it set trees ablaze. But those attempts to extinguish it over the past two decades have failed.

HELPER — A new effort is underway in central Utah to put out a fire that's been burning for a long time. A very long time.

The underground fire was first spotted by miners in 1941. It's never killed anyone, and it's done very little property damage. And while the fire's been out of sight and mostly out of mind, it's created hellish conditions underground and has been devilishly difficult to put out.

"It's a safety hazard for hunters and recreationists in the area," said Louis Amodt of the Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. He's managing the attempt to extinguish the fire burning in coal seams dozens of feet beneath the surface.

The fire was first reported in by miners working in the Maclean Mine, part of a complex of old coal mines in Spring Canyon a few miles outside of Helper. The fire may have been started by spontaneous combustion, and it forced the closure of the Maclean mine in 1945.

No one seriously tried to do anything about the fire until 1989 when it set trees ablaze. But those attempts to extinguish it over the past two decades have failed.

Temperature probes dropped into drill holes show it remains hot underground 70 years after the fire broke out. "If we're over the fire, it goes way up in the 500 degree Fahrenheit range," said Ted Fitzgerald, an engineering consultant working on the state project.

A few years ago, temperature readings went as high as 2,500 degrees. The fire cooled substantially following a previous attempt to extinguish it.

Fumes deep in the ground remain potentially deadly. Concentrations of carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide are far above acceptable limits. "It's in the deadly range," Amodt said, "the toxic range."

Earlier this week, state contractors moved in with heavy equipment, mixing sand, cement, ash and foam into a form of grout. In all, they expect to pump 14,000 cubic yards of grout into the ground through drill holes and cracks. The goal is to suffocate the fire by cutting off its oxygen supply.

The fire is one of about two dozen documented coal fires that have been burning for years in Utah. Just last week, Amodt's agency tackled an underground fire near Vernal using a similar suffocation process. They believe that one is now out, but they won't know for sure for several months.

State planners have employed a variety of methods to try to map and define a fire they cannot see. They've examined winter photos that show isolated patches of ground where snow has melted, presumably from warming of the ground by the unseen fire. Hot spots also show up in infrared photographs.

"We think that the fire is in smaller pockets," Amodt said. "It's not a continuous fire front."

The fire that closed the Maclean Mine has been burning so long, it has caused the rock above to crack and shift. One crack runs nearly 100 feet deep. "The ground is all faulted and fractured so it leaks like a sieve," Amodt said. "And so oxygen is coming from multiple sources. If we can shut the oxygen supply the fire will go out."

State planners hope this fix will work, unlike previous efforts. "Before when we've injected some grouts, the temperatures have gone down significantly," Amodt said. "But then they've bounced back. So if we hit it bigger and harder, this time we hope we can surround the fire and hopefully extinguish it." 

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