District’s rapid response team helps extinguish coalmine fire in Washington state

Published Oct. 8, 2020

In June, after an unsuccessful attempt by local firefighters to put out a smoldering fire at an abandoned Navy coalmine in Cumberland, Washington, the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation reached out to the USACE Omaha District’s technical center of expertise rapid response team for assistance.

The fire was first detected after residents noticed the heavy smell of smoke drifting through their neighborhood for days on end. The Enumclaw fire department responded and realized that this was beyond their scope of expertise according to a statement posted to their website.  

Upon further investigation firefighters realized that several large piles of coal tailings (left over material from the mining process) had caught fire and had been smoldering for weeks and was slowly spreading.

Initial estimates put the amount of burning material at approximately ten thousand cubic yards.

According to Jeremy Ayala, project engineer, rapid response technical center of expertise, one of the initial challenges the team faced was getting to the smoldering pile of coal tailings with their heavy equipment. A trail had to be cleared first and large amounts of debris removed.

“Once we got on the ground it was difficult to see exactly how much material we were dealing with,” Ayala said. “When we dug into the burning piles the surface temperature would go from 180 degrees to sometimes over one thousand degrees. Our temperature gun goes up to 950 degrees and on more than one occasion it maxed out, a lot of the hotter material was actually at the bottom of the pile.”

Ayala explained that at one point the crew noticed that the fire was creeping up a nearby hill and they were able to use their heavy equipment to scrape back the material and stop it from spreading further.  

“There were never really any flames other than a few flare ups when the heavy equipment put their buckets into the smoldering piles,” Ayala said.  

 Ayala said that he never responded to this type of a project before and enjoys doing all the research involved, and that he learns something new on every project.

“It’s really rewarding to be able to go out there, access the situation and get the right crew together to do this kind of work” Ayala said. “The crew we had worked extremely well together. At times they would stop, access what they were doing, based on what was happening, and change their course of action.”

To extinguish this type of a fire, the coal tailings are diluted in small batches with a mixture of water and clean soil and then sprayed with a special firefighting foam.

After an initial site assessment on July 17, the crew worked ten-hour days, six days a week and the fire was extinguished in one month.

Mark Meacham, section chief, special projects branch, attributes much of the project’s overall success to members from the District’s program management branch, Teresa Reinig and Kimberly Tieskotter, and to the contracting office, Stephanie Rostermundt and Tim Howland.

Meacham said that they basically had a fire going on that had to put out for the customer and due to the hard work of these people, despite a few technical issues with a new system and the transfer of money, they were able to get this contract funded and awarded quickly.    

“It was great seeing the whole team work together. It was a very difficult project, this fire had been burning since the beginning of June and there was a heightened sense of concern,” Meachum said. “Some of the other federal agencies were not able to travel due to the pandemic. We were allowed to use our expertise to go out there during the pandemic and did a great job.”   

Other stakeholders involved included: the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Also providing support were members of 10th Civil Support Team from Joint Base Lewis McCord which set up several air-quality monitoring stations around the city of Cumberland.

This contract was awarded to a service disabled Veteran owned small business company from Washington state.

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