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Tracking eastern Montana’s silent firestarters

Fire fighers use drip torches to contain a grass fire ignited by a burning coal seam on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation over Labor Day weekend.
Jon Kohn
Bureau of Indian Affairs/File photo
Firefighters use drip torches to contain a grass fire ignited by a burning coal seam on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2019.

ROSEBUD COUNTY — Last summer, wildfires burned half of John Bailey’s 25,000-acre ranch. With much of his pasture up in smoke, Bailey had to purchase hay to help feed his cattle. He says he spent about $90,000 on hay this past winter as a result of drought and fires in 2021. He also had to replace fencing and change his herds’ grazing patterns to accommodate the burns, an expense of time and money.

“Oh my God, I thought I’d never have to deal with this in my lifetime again,” Bailey said, remembering when a lightning strike started the Chalky Fire, which burned across his ranch in 2012.

The Richard Spring Fire that burned part of Bailey’s property in August 2021, and eventually burned more than 170,000 acres in Rosebud County and on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, was sparked by a burning underground coal seam. It was the largest wildfire in Montana last summer.

From just about any spot on his property, Bailey can see coal seams in the surrounding hillsides. They are a common presence in eastern Montana’s geography, and the cause of lots of smaller fires he deals with annually. He has seams on his property, too, and he says he was unaware of at least half of them until they started a ground fire.

Bailey is a fifth-generation rancher, still working a portion of the land his great-great-grandmother settled south of Colstrip in 1883.

“It’s a job,” he said about keeping track of the seams. “It takes time and effort and money, and I have very few, if any, of those things.”

Keeping track

"It takes time and effort and money, and I have very few, if any, of those things."

Underground coal seam fires can burn unnoticed for years. Under the right conditions, the quiet burns can get out of hand and do widespread damage, as happened with the Richard Spring Fire last summer. Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reported 458 fires last summer in Custer, Big Horn, Powder River, Richland, Rosebud, Garfield and Carter counties, and 51 were attributed to coal seams. That is the highest reported number in 10 years.

Mapping the smoldering seams is one way to address the risk early, and Custer County Disaster and Emergency Services, in partnership with tribal, local, state and federal agencies, is working to collect that data and get it out to the public.

Cory Cheguis, DES coordinator for Custer County, is spearheading an effort to map the burning seams in Custer, Big Horn, Powder River and Rosebud counties, in hopes that the information can help fire managers understand which seams present the highest risks come fire season, and which might qualify for mitigation funding.

Chris Pileski, area manager with DNRC’s eastern land office, said the Richard Spring Fire, which Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a major disaster to secure federal funding for damages to power lines, utilities, tribal fencing and public property, generated momentum to start tracking burning coal seams in Montana. There have been halting efforts to do so over the past 10 to 15 years, Pileski said, but they kept running into obstacles.

“Up until this point, what we’ve really tracked has been wildfires that we know have been caused by coal seams,” Pileski said. “In a roundabout way that allows us to track coal seams because we know there was a coal seam that started that wildfire, but what we really were tracking was the wildfire.”

What are coal seams?

Coal seams are best viewed from the side, from a gully rather than a hilltop, said John Metesh, director of the Montana Bureau of Mines.

He describes the rock formations housing coal seams as a layer cake: a layer of sedimentary rock, a layer of coal, and another sedimentary layer. Stripes of red in the hillsides are called “clinker,” which is formed when the sandwiched coal burns and transforms the bookend layers of sedimentary rock.

Coal is a fossil composed of compacted organic material that has solidified into rock over time. The Fort Union Rock Formation that covers eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming was a giant swamp in the Tertiary era, Metesh said. Millions of years’ worth of plants and animals dying and decaying in that swamp, then buried under the weight of water and soil, eventually transformed into fossilized coal.

Some of that coal has been periodically burning under the surface of eastern Montana for millions of years. Surface wildfire that burns across an exposed seam can start the coal smoldering. Such smolders typically extinguish themselves as the burn collapses under overlying terrain, smothering itself.

But spontaneous combustion, lightning strikes and wildland fire can also transform a contained coal seam smolder to a raging surface fire.

“It’s kind of somewhat of a catch-22, because sometimes it’s a grass fire that got the coal seam started on fire, but sometimes it might be a coal seam fire that started a grass fire,” Metesh said.

Stopping the smolder

Bill Snoddy, Abandoned Mine Lands program coordinator for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, keeps a chunk of a coal seam in his Helena office. He uses it as a paperweight or a door stopper. He kept it because he thought it was pretty.

Snoddy once responded to a call about a coal seam in Treasure County that had been burning for almost 80 years. Homesteaders in the early 1900s had mined the seam, and at some point it caught fire, maybe sparked by a lightning strike or wildfire, Snoddy said, but no one noticed it at the time.

It smoldered until a property owner in 2011 noticed a hillside caving in on itself. Smoke was emerging from cracks in the ground. Grass was singed black. Because of the seam’s mining history, DEQ was able to access funding to extinguish the seam, an expensive process.

Joan Breiner started working for North Dakota’s Abandoned Mine Lands program in 2012, just as a nine-year cycle of funding to address coal seam fires — called outcrop fires in North Dakota — came to a close. Breiner said 47 North Dakota coal seam fires were put out between 2003 and 2012, mostly on Forest Service land, at a cost of $170,000.

Western North Dakota is arid and windy, conditions that can turn a spark into a conflagration. “That’s the major concern for those outcrop fires,” Breiner said. “That it’s going to start a grassland fire and be difficult to control.”

To effectively extinguish and mitigate a coal seam fire, the coal has to be exposed to air and drenched with water until it’s cool to the touch. It then has to be removed from the seam and drenched again. The coal is then covered with topsoil and the hill contoured and replanted.

Mitigation of the long-burning Treasure County coal seam in 2015 cost half a million dollars. Treatment of that seam also benefited from documentation linking it to mining conducted before 1977. Funding from DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Lands program requires proof that the area was mined for coal and abandoned before 1977.

The Abandoned Mine Lands program was created by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 to reclaim mines abandoned in the years before the act was passed. SMRCA also created an Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund that taps a reclamation fee on coal production to help states and tribes pay for reclamation projects.

Snoddy estimated that 1,500 eastern Montana coal seams were sparked by the Rosebud Complex Fires of 2012.

“It’s going to be virtually impossible without a big influx of money to address all 1,500 locations,” Snoddy said. “If it’s not mining-related, we can’t really do anything. We can provide ideas and guidance and help with technology, things like that, but we can’t go out and put a burning coal seam out that doesn’t have a mining nexus.”

Why maps matter

Cory Cheguis, fire chief warden and DES coordinator for Custer County, was on a fire team that responded to the Richard Spring Fire. He’d been in the area a hundred times for fires started by coal seams over the past seven years, he said. Fuel conditions were dry and it was breezy when he arrived on the scene in August 2021.

“They say that fires move in chains per hour, which is 66 feet, but that fire was moving in miles per hour,” Cheguis said.

In 2021, there were 51 documented wildfires that started from burning coal seams in Bighorn, Custer, Powder River and Rosebud counties. Cheguis emphasized the word “documented.” He said many landowners take care of small flare-ups themselves without reporting the fire.

That same year, Cheguis said, 248,000 acres in eastern Montana burned, with 201,000 acres attributed specifically to coal seams. That acreage consists of agricultural lands, ranchlands and tribal lands. Cheguis saw his neighbors affected by those fires, including ranchers selling their cattle and getting out of the business because they couldn’t afford to weather another drought or another fire.

Cheguis’ goal is to collect data like the location and depth of coal seams to indicate which ones might need special attention when wildfire conditions worsen. DEQ has a website with a self-reporting option that sends Cheguis a notification when someone identifies a new coal seam fire. Kim Wells, whom Cheguis called the Abandoned Mine Lands program’s GIS wizard, was in charge of creating the program that allows the coal seam mappers — including private landowners and firefighters who come across one — to enter coordinates.

Two firefighters with the Broadus volunteer fire department, Clint Pedersen and Myles Gardner, started a company in December called CM Thermal and Fire, a private coal seam tracking group. Peterson and Gardner invested their own money and time in the company, and Cheguis met them through their mutual interest in tracking coal seams.

CM Thermal posted on its Facebook page on July 18, saying: “‘Finding the burning coal seams is the easy part.’ Well, sort of. It’s also a humbling and interesting learning experience.”

The Facebook page is a photo gallery of the coal seams and coal seam fires Cheguis, Pedersen and Gardner have dedicated hundreds of hours to mapping. Lengthy captions garner comments like, “Never heard this information before,” and “You’re kind of freaking me out.”

Aided most recently by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, CM Thermal and Fire contracts a plane that scans for heat signatures and drops a GPS coordinate that leads coal seam trackers to the area to investigate. Once they determine there is in fact a smoldering coal seam, they put the coordinates on a map. CM Thermal also flies drones equipped with thermal technology to locate burning coal seams, “because this country’s miserable,” Cheguis said. “You’d only get to two a day hiking in.”

“We can predict lightning and we can gear up and be ready for lightning,” DNRC’s Pileski said. “A burning coal seam that ignites a wildfire can happen on any given day. The most beautiful, bluebird, just calm, average day, and the right coal seam gets the right amount of fuel and the right place and it’s another burden on that local government fire response. They’re an already pretty taxed group of folks.”

A way of life

Cheguis’ maps will allow fire managers to better understand where burning coal seams are and how at risk of surface ignition an area may be. If the seam is associated with a pre-1977 mine, there might be funding available for mitigation. If not, Cheguis can look to DES or FEMA for funding.

"It’s a way of life, the fires are, for us over here."

He expects the map to be live this fall on a public GIS database.

The first fire Cheguis responds to each year is always a coal seam fire. This summer, he determined that the now-100%-contained Wall Fire in Rosebud County, which burned close to 2,000 acres, was a coal seam fire.

Cheguis had mapped the area months before.

Cheguis has lived in Miles City almost his whole life. He’s talked with John Bailey about his ranch burning every year from coal seam fires. He started his mapping project out of concern for the livelihoods of Bailey and his neighbors.

“It’s a way of life, the fires are, for us over here,” Cheguis said.