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Underground fires wreak havoc COLORADO (USA) - Thousands of underground coal fires around the world could be fuelling toxic pollution, contributing up to 3% of the rate of global warming and threatening wildlife, scientists warned yesterday.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Denver, Colorado, yesterday, delegates were told that out-of-control fires in east Kalimantan, Borneo, could endanger the last remaining wild populations of orang-utans, and the world's smallest bear, the sun bear. Subterranean coal fires in 1998 moved from a logging concession into a national reserve and damaged roughly half of the 10,000 hectares (24,000 acres) of forest.
Of the estimated 20,000 orang-utans in the wilds of Indonesia, around 15,000 were in Kalimantan, said Alfred Whitehouse, a consultant for the Jakarta government. "We believe there are as many as 3,000 fires burning in this area," he said. "Hundreds of orang-utans have been killed. Those that escape have to move into areas of human population and start eating out of dustbins. Then the locals start going after them with machetes."
Some of the fires were extinguished with injections of a cement mixture with the consistency of shaving foam. But coal fires are a global catastrophe, according to Glenn Stracher of East Georgia College. He calculated that out-of-control fires in China alone could consume up to 200m tonnes of coal a year, dumping enough carbon monoxide, soot, and other pollutants into the atmosphere to match the entire output of all the cars in the US.
Coal fires occasionally start from spontaneous combustion as chemicals in the seams react with oxygen and water to release heat. But most are lit by forest fires on the surface, or sparks from welding equipment or explosives. Blazes can smoulder for decades or even centuries, exploding into new life as galleries collapse to create fresh draughts of oxygen.
An underground coal fire began in Centralia, Pennsylvania in 1962 after townspeople burned the town's dump. A coal seam beneath it caught fire. "At one point they dug a big trench to try to stop the fire," said Melissa Nolter of Pennsylvanian State University. "But they realised the fire had already passed that point. They filled the hole and eventually the federal government relocated nearly the entire town."
Today Centralia is a ghost town. Its ground is cracked, the fire is still advancing, at 20 metres (66ft) a year. The conference was also told that a coal fire near Aspen, Colorado, eventually destroyed 5,000 hectares of forest, a stretch of state highway, 37 homes and cost $20m (12m) to extinguish. "People have been mining coal and using it as a fuel for at least 1,000 years," Dr Whitehouse said. "But these days, it is the human factor that has increased the severity of the fires."



Posted in Forest fires @ 15 February 2003 00:01 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink






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