The Alaska Division of Forestry is monitoring a new coal seam fire in the Healy area reported on Tuesday.
The 2016 Louise Creek Fire is burning in an old burn scar approximately 1-2 miles north of another coal seam fire that was reported about three weeks ago, the 2016 French Gulch Fire. The new fire was putting up considerable smoke on Wednesday when high winds moved through the area and grass surrounding the coal seam caught fire. The Division of Forestry responded with a helicopter to drop water on the north side of the fire to keep it contained in the old burn scar.
The fire is located in a drainage surrounded by old burn scars as a result of previous coal seam fires and does not pose a threat at this time. The Division of Forestry will continue to monitor it and other coal seam fires from the air and on the ground throughout the summer.
It is the fourth coal seam fire reported this season in the area northeast of Healy. Coal seam fires, which result from the underground smoldering of coal deposits, are common in the Healy area, where large areas to the north and east are underlain with coal seams and coal seam outcrops. During warm, dry conditions, the fires sometimes come to the surface and ignite grass surrounding the coal seam.
Fairbanks Area Fire Management Officer Ed Sanford said he anticipates more coal seam fires to be reported this summer as conditions get warmer and drier.
“We’ll probably see smoke off and on throughout the summer,” Sanford said.
Because they smolder underground, coal seam fires are notoriously hard to extinguish and can burn for several years or decades. Last summer, there were nine coal seam fires reported in the Healy area that burned almost 800 acres.
The biggest of the four coal seam fires reported this season, the 2016 Lignite Creek Fire, was estimated at 10 acres and was located a few miles north of Usibelli Coal. The other two fires, the Buzzard Creek Fire and 2016 French Gulch Fire, were estimated at 1 and 0.5 acres, respectively. All four fires are in areas that have burned previously as a result of coal seam fires.
For safety reasons, the Division of Forestry typically does not take action on coal seam fires unless they are threatening life and property. It is unsafe for firefighters to directly attack coal seam fires because of noxious gases emitted by the fires and the potential for firefighters to fall into burning coal seams in the event of a ground collapse, Sanford said.
This year’s coal seam fires in the Healy area occurred earlier than normal, most likely due to the lack of snowfall this winter combined with warm, dry temperatures this spring that resulted in a quick melt off of the snow pack.