GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT — A fire in a building might burn for a day or two; a wildfire, maybe a few weeks. But a fire in southern Utah may have been burning for millions of years.
"We don't know how long these have been burning," Bureau of Land Management geologist James Holland said, pointing to columns of smoke coming out of holes in the ground.
The unusual domain of scorched earth and ancient fire is in a scenic landscape north of Lake Powell and within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Several long-standing place names in the area indicate that something's been burning a long time. Road signs point the way to such locales as Smoky Hollow and Smoky Mountain. A drainage in the area long ago was given the name Warm Creek. A set of soaring cliffs — colored red like bricks from an oven — are called the Burning Hills.
Smoke may have been rising out of holes in the ground far longer than people have been in the area, but no one knows for sure.
"There's been a lot of guesses," Holland said, "from hundreds of years to millions of years."
A buildup of creosote on rocks surrounding the smoke holes is a clue to the fury underground. A vast underground deposit of coal was apparently set alight eons ago by spontaneous combustion or by a thunderstorm.
"I would say it's probably guaranteed it's lightning strikes" that ignited the fires, Holland said.
Enough oxygen enters through cracks in the ground to keep the blaze — or blazes — alive.
Holland's father, Roger Holland, is also a geologist. He said ancient fire is the reason the cliffs of the Burning Hills turned brick red.
"That's because the coal underneath those hills has burned," Roger Holland said. "The heat from the coal has oxidized the iron that's been locked up in the rock."
The aroma is about what you'd expect: It's the smell of an old coal furnace that's been burning way too long.
Roger Holland said fissures and other deformations are noticeable at the surface due to the long-lasting fires. As combustion reduces the volume of coal, collapses occur underground that change the topography at the surface.
It's likely there are large underground caverns full of fire, James Holland said.
"You know, you always hope when you come out here and you're stepping around it that that cavern isn't going to collapse today," he said.
That danger is not entirely theoretical. James Kirkland, Utah's state paleontologist, had a scare once while hunting for fossils in the area.
"I touched the ground at a spot," Kirkland said, "and my hand went right through, and flames came shooting out of the ground. Scared the life out of me."
With so much valuable coal going up in smoke, coal companies and government agencies tried to extinguish the fire back in the 1960s.
"They came out here and tried to put this thing out with some big equipment by pushing dirt and smothering it," James Holland said as he stood next to a column of smoke rising from a chasm. "You can see that it didn't work."
A proposed coal mine in the area was stopped when President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.
So chances are, nature will continue to have its way, making smoky hollows and burning hills for eons into the future.
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