Canada –It’s a fire which has been burning for decades with no sign of abating and on Sunday night many area residents took in the sights of its burning glow on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.
The coal seam fire believed to be burning at or near the site of the former Ajax Mine near Echo Dale Park has, by some anecdotal accounts, been burning since it closed in 1968.
“It’s something that’s been going on forever,” said Cypress County manager Lutz Perschon.”Every now and again in winter time, you see the smoke because it’s cold and there is evaporation.”
University of Lethbridge geologist Rene Barendregt said coal seam fires are a common occurrence in coal-rich Alberta with many being started by lightning strikes or grass fires.
“Some of them were the result of controlled fires in and around a mine area or a fire or explosion in a mine can start a fire which they can never fully get out,” explained Barendregt. “When you have windy conditions i.e. very low atmospheric pressure then you may see some smoke and even flames.”
The fires burn slow and smolder, appearing dormant or even exhausted before an increase in oxygen levels see them flare up again.
“Either they run out of coal or run out of oxygen,” said Barendregt of the only way they stop burning.
“Typically it’s combustible material first because ground water brings with it some oxygen and just the oxygen from a water molecule is enough to keep it burning very slowly.”
He added such fires can burn for hundreds of years if the seam is big enough.
As for lasting environmental effects, Barendregt said in some cases, buildings built on top of such burning seams can see increased levels of coal gas.
“If that were to build up in a home or business, it could be toxic in high enough concentrations, but that would be rare,” he said.
Other than that, such fires pose little environmental risk.
The Medicine Hat/Redcliff area was home to a number of documented and undocumented mines that operated from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century.