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North Dakota Burning

On this date in 1913, hundreds of thousands of tons of North Dakota coal was being eaten up by fires in undeveloped mines. Coal is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of North Dakota. But in 1913, a geologist estimated that the state had 32,000 square miles of coal fields containing 500 billion tons of coal. The coal fires had the state legislature alarmed at what they called the “wanton destruction” of a valuable state resource.

The coal fires were not new. The earliest written reference comes from Lewis and Clark when they were wintering at Mandan in 1805. Lewis had observed such fires and believed they caused the discoloration of rock that could be seen in the river bluffs. Some explorers, including Fremont, Nicollet, and Audubon, thought the discolored rock was volcanic, but Lewis’s interpretation proved correct.

Several other explorers reported coal fires on the Great Plains. Some were ignited by prairie fires. The coal fires could burn for a long time. A seam of lignite at Buck Hill burned from 1951 to 1977. In 1976 prairie fires ignited lignite seams over a 7,000 acre area near Amidon. Although those were extinguished fairly quickly by coal fire standards, they still burned for several months. One fire near Bowman burned for decades and became something of a tourist attraction. It finally burned out in the late 1970s. In 1988, widespread prairie fires in the badlands started coal fires when juniper tree roots burned down to the coal.

In 2008 a coal fire was reported near I-94 about thirteen miles west of Bismarck. It was only 100 yards from the Interstate. With coal fires notoriously difficult to extinguish, state officials had to consider whether to make an effort to put the fire out or let it burn out on its own. Concluding that the fire was about four feet underground and in no danger of undermining the highway, they made the decision to let it burn.

One safety concern – officials warn that the fires are very hot, and someone who ventures close can slip into the fire if the ground gives way.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

The Washburn Leader. “Lignite Coal Beds Afire in the State.” 3/14/1913. Washburn ND. Page 1.

Bismarck Tribune. “Underground Coal Fire Burning Along ND Interstate.” 2/1/2008.

North Dakota Geological Survey. “North Dakota’s Clinker.” https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndgs/ndnotes/ndn13_h.htm  Accessed 2/11/19.

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