Burning Coal Vents in the Grand Staircase NM
By Phil Clark
Not far from Page is an underground coal fire that is estimated by the Utah Geological Society to have been burning for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The site is on the aptly named Smoky Mountain, off of the road of the same name, and is one of seven underground coal fires that continue to burn in Kane, Emery and Carbon Counties in Utah. This reporter went with his family to see the site for the first time, located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, just north and east of Big Water, Utah. It helped to have a copy of the BLM map for the Monument, available at the Big Water and other visitor centers, with the various numbered roads identified and an approximate location for the vents shown on the map. We found no signs pointing the way to the coal fire vents. We drove up to the top of Smoky Mountain and looked around. Following the map to a spur road, we soon started smelling the acrid fumes and followed our noses to the source, at the end of an un-numbered road. Once there, we saw large fissures in the ground, coated with black tar, surrounded by a large area devoid of vegetation of any kind. We saw no animals either. No flames are visible, as the fires burn and smolder deep underground. The ground under our feet felt hot and we were glad to have our shoes on. Since it was a hot day, there was almost no smoke or steam. According to the Utah Geological Survey, the vents are more dramatic in the wintertime when the temperatures are much cooler. However, visitors should be mindful that the road can be impossible to drive on when covered with snow. No one really knows how the fires started. Geologists know that coal, in the presence of oxygen, can spontaneously combust and speculate that lightning might also have caused the “Big Smoky Fire.” It’s not likely that the fires were caused by humans. In 1968 and 1969, the U.S. Bureau of Mines attempted to extinguish the fires by using water and other fire retardants, to no avail. Bulldozers and excavators were also used to fill in the cracks to try to extinguish the fires without success. Between 1958 and 1976, the Bureau of Mines attempted to smother eight of the 11 active coal seam fires. Only one was successfully extinguished, between Mt. Carmel Junction and Zion National Park. The remaining fires refused to be put out and seven fires in Utah continue to smolder to this day. At the Big Smoky Fire, more cracks have appeared since then and visitors should be careful when walking around the area. This naturally occurring fire will probably only stop when the coal itself has completely burned out. The road to the site is really only suitable for high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. The narrow road to the top of Smoky Mountain is rough and can be steep in places, often cut into the sides of cliffs and with hairpin turns. At times there is no room for two vehicles to pass. The surface of most of the road is clay and is impassable when wet, even for four-wheel drive vehicles. If rain is expected, visitors should postpone the visit for another day when it is dry. Cell coverage is spotty, at best. Bring plenty of drinking water. Fumes from the vents smelled strong, not unlike hot roofing tar or asphalt used in paving roads. Our clothing seemed to retain a hint of the coal fire smell and we put them in the washer once we got home. As a day trip from the Page area, we brought a picnic lunch and stopped at a viewpoint, well away from the smoky vents to have lunch. We were treated to an expansive view of the Lake Powell area to the south. Despite the rough road and the smell, we were glad to have discovered this geological site.