Mining expert: Tire fire in mine not likely to spread below Trevorton

The Department of Environmental Protection hired a contractor to dump more than 165,000 gallons of water on the abandoned mine shaft fire on Big Mountain near Trevorton, April 29, 2021.

A surge of water dumped into an abandoned mine in Zerbe Township this weekend appeared to partially quench a tire fire burning below ground, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

DEP contracted with Tri-County Spreading of Paxinos on Friday to drive water using multiple tanker trucks to the mine opening atop Big Mountain immediately south of Trevorton. The contractor dumped approximately 65,000 gallons Saturday and more than 100,000 Sunday.

“On Sunday, the steam and smoke that was coming out of the slope was significantly diminished,” according to a response provided by Megan Lehman, environmental community relations specialist, Williamsport.

“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” to smother the blaze, Lehman said.

DEP met last week at the site with emergency response contractors to assess the fire, which was first reported on April 24. Thousands of used tires and other waste discarded illegally into the mine opening caught fire and it’s presumed coal is also burning. Proposals to extinguish the fire were anticipated Monday.

“If a quote is acceptable and it is still deemed necessary based on current conditions at the site, the company can begin work this week to extinguish the fire using PFAS-free firefighting foam or inert gas. However, if the high-volume water application is able to completely extinguish the fire, the secondary contractor may not be necessary,” Lehman said.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that can be found in certain firefighting foams. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, exposure to PFAS can cause negative health effects like a risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers.

Tri-County Spreading’s involvement allowed Trevorton Fire Company to pull its own tanker out of the coal hills and free it up to respond to potential emergencies more quickly from the stationhouse. Christina Ramer, Trevorton fire assistant chief, said it took 20 to 25 minutes to drive off the mountain and another 15 to 20 minutes to fill the tanker. The relief from the mine fire site was welcomed and eased concerns of an emergency occurring in Zerbe Township while the company volunteers were tied up on the mountain, Ramer said.

A look at the fire burning inside an abandoned mine near Trevorton, as seen on April 29, 2021.

The fire company’s brush truck was knocked out of commission driving up the steep and rocky roads to the mine site. Two other fire companies also saw their equipment damaged during the initial response. Ramer thanked the Trevorton community for its patience as well as area miners who’ve helped provide insight on the terrain above ground and below ground.

Tri-County’s tankers can carry up to 5,000 gallons and dump a load in about 90 seconds compared to Trevorton Fire’s 1,400-gallon tanker that takes between 15 and 20 minutes to release its own haul, according to DEP and Ramer, who also is the emergency management director for Zerbe Township.

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Tri-County is dropping three to five loads in an hour while Trevorton Fire was only capable to make one drop each hour, Ramer said.

Ramer said she’ll continue to visit the site once or twice daily. She said there was much less smoke and steam on Sunday, adding that high winds late last week whipping through tunnels and shafts definitely stoked the fire below.

“We can still smell it so we do know it’s still burning,” Ramer said. “The whole time we were up there we never saw flames, even on the initial attack.”

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