A coal mine is currently burning the hell up in Australia. For obvious reasons, fires in coal mines are extremely problematic—the exposed coalface burns, just as coal should, and smolders through the underground seam, where it’s safely protected from any firefighting. For the power plant town of Morwell, two hours east of Melbourne, this all began with a bushfire on February 9. Police are chasing a suspected arsonist who lit a fire beside the Strzelecki Highway, which then burned through a timber plantation and into the mine. From the start, firefighters and the mine operator knew it would be a bitch to put out. A mine spokesperson told MiningAustralia.com.au that it’d take at least two weeks to extinguish. "You can drop a bucket of water over it,” he said. “And it looks like the fire is out, but it will come back as a smoldering fire." Until they can figure out what to do, the residents were told to stay inside while the local council started handing out face masks. Today, the fire is still burning, and around 25,000 masks have been distributed.
Driving to Morwell, you can see it from way back. It appears as a hump of smoke on the horizon, and then your eyes get itchy. Of course, Morwell produces 25 percebt of Melbourne’s power from brown coal, so it’s always a bit like that. Hazelwood power station, for which the coal mine was built, was also named the least carbon-efficient plant in 30 countries by WWF in 2005, but given that, the locals still seemed pretty worked-up about the smoke.
“It’s bad,” said Tony Morgan, owner of the local laundromat. “The only good thing is business. Everyone’s clothes end up stinking, so I’m getting people washing day and night.” When I was at the laundromat, business did indeed seem to be booming. Some of the customers were wearing masks; some weren't. “But you’ve actually come on a good day. You should have seen it yesterday,” he said. Tony showed me foul, brown panoramas of the town from his phone. “It’s all about the wind. Some days I can’t even see across the street.”
Down the street at Noodle Paradise, the owner, Bill, repeated the same thing. He too had a dozen smog photos, including the one above, taken from his front lawn. “It wakes me up,” he told me. “I just wake up, and I feel like there’s no air, and I know it’s the smoke outside. We close the windows, the doors… Nothing works.”
Bill seemed particularly angry. “I just don’t know why it’s taken three weeks to put out," he said. “The CFA say another week, another week, and in that time we’re just told to stay inside.” Unfortunately for Bill and his neighbors, coal fires aren't easily extinguished. As mining safety expert David Cliff explained to ABC radio, “Unlike timber, coal when it gets hot has massive thermal mass, which is very hard to extinguish. There are a number of places known as 'burning mountains' in Australia, where there are old underground coal deposits and cracks to the surface with smoke issuing from them. It will burn and continue to burn and can be very difficult to put out because the access to it is very deep." In the interview, David points to Burning Mountain in New South Wales, which was lit up by a lightning strike about 6,000 years ago. It will continue to burn at a meter a year for the foreseeable future.
The mine is easy enough to find. It’s a drive out of town and a climb over a barbed fence and there it is. The place smells like a steam train in a pioneer village and the ground is warm to the touch. Across the pit, fire trucks head up and down the tiers, spraying water as best they can. Along the top of the mine is a firebreak cleared by bulldozers. Beyond that is blackened scrub from the fires. Peering into the scrub, I can see a number of fires still raging.
There a several cracks in the earth, running parallel to the mine rim. I climb in from the firebreak and realize that the cracks are an exposed coal seam, burning underground.
Snapping the perfect selfie wasn't easy. In the time it took to take this, my shoes started to melt, and I suddenly realized that falling into a hellish crevasse of burning coal was a very real possibility, so I left.
The burning mine glows in the dark, giving you a better visual idea of the hellscape we're dealing with here.
I stood and watched for a while, impressed with the wind fanning the coalface. Like wind on water, the embers glow and ripple, sometimes sending up sparks.
A headache kept me awake for the drive home. A lot of people have left, and there have been panicky calls to evacuate. In the meantime, firefighters claim that “observational reports from ground and aircraft have indicated significant progress has been made.” Experts have been called in to review strategy, and everyone seems confident the fire will be out within weeks. But for the moment, if you find yourself in Australia, avoid Morwell. It’s just not a healthy town.