Officials consider next steps as mine fire burns hundreds of feet underground

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ZERBE TOWNSHIP, NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — A case of illegal dumping has taken a turn for the worse in Northumberland County. Firefighters have been battling fire hundreds of feet below the ground in an abandoned mine in Zerbe Township since Saturday night. 

County and state officials came together Wednesday to figure out how to completely extinguish this fire. 

Smoke is coming from a 10-foot-wide hole in the ground, which is also the mine’s entrance. Officials say people have been illegally dumping their trash here, which has accelerated this fire, making it difficult to battle.

“Obviously, it’s a nice area, it’s a nice lookout, but having a fire here, over a town, it’s… Yeah it’s not good,” said Stephen Jeffery, director of public safety for Northumberland County.

Firefighters were called to the scene in the hills of Zerbe Township Saturday evening. Assistant fire chief Christina Ramer was one of the first people on scene.

“We tried to attack it with half of the county getting water up here because it’s obviously a remote location. Obviously, that was not feasible and this is what we’re left with.”

Over 200,000 gallons of water was sent down the mine shaft that first day, and firefighters are still fighting the flames below. Ramer says the fire could be about 800 feet underground— making it a challenge to properly put it out. The mine was last used in the 1970s.

“From what we’re gathering, this has been a dump site between trash, household appliances— you name it,” Jeffrey said.

The DEP says it appears that the fire is predominantly consuming waste tires. Officials say the smell is reaching the communities below, like Trevorton.

“It could be sulfur. It could be rubber, it could be garbage — but it just depends on the time of day,” Ramer said.

There is no indication as to whether the fire is spreading. County commissioners say this incident is alarming.

“Anytime in this area when you hear in there’s a fire in a shaft or something it’s alarming because not too far from here, we had this incident with the Centralia mine fire,” said Joe Klebon, Northumberland County commissioner.

That fire has been burning in the mines since 1962 and caused the town to be evacuated due to unsafe carbon monoxide levels. That’s why officials want to head this off before it becomes worse.

“I just was on the phone with the governor’s office, his liaison. We’re gonna do everything we can that reaches every state resource needed we’re gonna bring in here,” said State Representative Kurt Masser, 107th district (R).

County officials agree, saying this is out of Northumberland County’s area expertise.

“We need people who know how to handle this, people who can come up here and give us expert advice because it’s probably going to be an expensive project and we’re also going to need funding,” said Sam Schiccatano, Northumberland County commissioner.

Fire officials tell Eyewitness News the next step to put this fire out is to use foam to really get into the crevices of the mine. 

The DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation is working to determine the best way to fight this fire. They released the following statement to Eyewitness News on Wednesday.

“The fire is located underground inside a narrow, abandoned mine opening, so visibility is very poor. It appears that the fire is predominantly consuming waste tires at this time. The smell and appearance of the smoke is consistent with that of burning rubber, and DEP has received reports of long-term dumping of car and truck tires at the site. The exact number of tires is not known, since they were illegally dumped over a period of years, and the cache of tires is not accessible at this time. It is not currently known if the fire has spread into the adjacent coal bed.” 

PA Dept. of Environmental Protection

They will be actively involved with the site until the fire is extinguished. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

On Tuesday, May 4, a representative from the DEP released the following statement in part:

“The contractor applied 65,000 gallons of water to the fire on Saturday and over 100,000 gallons on Sunday. On Sunday, the steam and smoke that was coming out of the slope was significantly diminished.  The large-volume water application will continue in the short term until the fire is extinguished or, if determined to be the necessary next step, an emergency contract is issued for a specialized contractor to use firefighting foam or inert gas,”

Megan Lehman, environmental community relations specialist, Department of Environmental Protection

 

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