Forestry officials monitoring season's fourth coal seam fire near Healy

Photo courtesy Janice Doherty
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) A coal seam fire burning near Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy ignited some grass after high winds moved through the area Wednesday afternoon, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. The fire created a large plume of thick smoke.

According to forestry officials, the fire is burning near the site of a similar fire that ignited about three weeks ago.

“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 Forestry Division wrote in a press release Wednesday.

Forestry officials used a helicopter to drop water on the fire Wednesday, keeping it contained within an old burn scar. According to Division spokesman Tim Mowry, the fire currently poses little danger to the public and officials are monitoring it to make sure it does not expand past a certain limit.

Mowry says coal seam fires can be common around this time of the year when conditions become warmer and drier.

“There are coal deposits all around Healy, they can smoulder underground for years or decades,” Mowry told Channel 2. “This is an annual appearance. We’ll see smoke on an off throughout the summer.”

So far, four coal seam fires have been reported this season in the area northeast of Healy, according to the Forestry Division. Last year, a total of nine fires occurred near Healy, burning about 800 acres.

“The latest 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 DOF wrote. “All four fires are in areas that have burned previously as a result of coal seam fires.”

Usibelli spokeswoman Lorali Simon said the fire was likely ignited by natural causes, although the exact cause is unknown.

“Coal seam fires are quite common and usually happen naturally, sometimes from a lighting strike,” Simon said. “We leave it up to the Division of Forestry on what they want to do. Sometimes they just burn out by themselves. Right now there aren’t any indications that the fire is threatening the community.”

Because coal seam fires can produce large amounts of hazardous gasses, firefighters usually avoid directly attacking them and instead monitor the flames to make sure they don't spread.