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South Canyon’s hole of smoldering coal

It’s November. Snow covers area mountains and invites skiers and snowboarders to early-opening resorts.

At long last, the heat, smoke and flame of this summer’s unprecedented Colorado wildfire season are but memories.

Well, maybe next week, anyway.



This week, a state mine official and an earthmoving crew from Loma have been busy up South Canyon, cooling down hot spots lingering in coal debris piles as a result of the June 8 Coal Seam Fire.

That fire destroyed 29 homes and burned more than 12,000 acres around Glenwood Springs. At the time, officials warned that the fire probably would continue to smolder until snow fell, particularly in inaccessible areas high in the forest north of Glenwood Springs.



But heated remnants of the fire also can be found only a few hundred yards from the point where it started more than five months ago.

Starting Tuesday, Steve Renner, a project manager with the state Division of Minerals and Geology Abandoned Mined Lands program, joined a three-man crew of contractors from Dirt-N-Iron of Loma to tackle the worst of those smoldering spots.

It consists of perhaps 450 square yards of coal debris, mixed in with other rock and sitting alongside the railroad bed that once served South Canyon’s coal mine.

By week’s end, workers also hoped to tackle a few more nearby hot spots consisting of debris piles that are far smaller in size.

But this first pile was the greatest concern, because of its size and because it sits adjacent to the South Canyon road.

The site is city of Glenwood Springs property, and city officials brought it to Renner’s attention out of concern for public safety.

“We had a little money and volunteered to do it,” Renner said of the project, which he estimated would cost the state about $5,000.

The Coal Seam Fire started when a decades-old underground fire in a coal seam broke through the surface on an extremely windy day and ignited tinder-dry brush. The hot spots being attacked this week don’t involve an underground coal seam, but attacked the surface debris piles that Renner believes were ignited by the fire.

“It really looks a lot more dramatic than it is, to tell you the truth,” Renner said as he trudged about the pile, helping direct a bulldozer and track hoe as they worked the site.

It had the appearance of an active volcano site, with billowing clouds pouring out everywhere from the heated earth. But it was more steam than smoke, the result of thousands of gallons of water a city fire truck had delivered to the site to cool things down, Renner said.

The hardest work took place Tuesday. Crews dug a hole, filled it with water, and pushed hot coal into it. They also mixed in dirt, and spread the cooling mixture around to air it out.

The pile had a fairly small amount of coal in it to begin with, said Renner. A lot of the debris was simply hot rock, and by Wednesday, a lot of the work simply involved exposing the rock to the air to cool it off.

As work progressed, Renner tested ground temperatures by poking the earth with a thermometer. Tuesday, temperature readings as high as 600 degrees weren’t uncommon.

Surface temperatures that measured 300 degrees Tuesday night had fallen to 50 or 60 degrees Wednesday morning merely through overnight exposure of the pile to the late-fall air.

“We’re pretty much out of all the hot coal at this point,” said Renner.

Still, hot lumps appeared here and there. While the debris pile wasn’t producing flames on its own, the coal lit up like logs in a fireplace once exposed to air by workers.

Blue smoke amid the white steam gave the burning coal away, while the heavy machinery further fouled the air with black soot as workers pushed the dirt around.

The fumes were decidedly noxious at times. On Tuesday, the heavy equipment operators carried in their cabs portable detectors designed to gauge levels of oxygen and dangerous gases.

While a little extra care was required the first day, the earthmoving work was pretty straightforward, said Mike Frick, co-owner of Dirt-N-Iron.

The work would have been more dangerous in an enclosed area, said Renner. Applying water could result in a dangerous pressure buildup and possible explosion of steam.

Renner said this week’s job is similar to a project he worked on at the Peanut Mine in Crested Butte. A coal debris pile there apparently caught fire due to spontaneous combustion.

Renner praised the city’s cooperation on this week’s project. He hopes it will be finished today, or at least by week’s end. When the pile is sufficiently cooled, it will be covered with top soil and seeded.

Until then, he said, the public is best off staying away from the site.

“It’s really not a good place to be recreating or sightseeing at this point,” he said.


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