We know how devastating forest fires can be. We also know how hard it is to extinguish underground coal fires, which can burn for decades. In between those two disasters is the underground peat fire, called a zombie fire. Zombie fires can burn for years and spread unnoticed into new areas, ruining the environment as they go.
Just ask the firefighters who battled North Carolina’s Evans Road Fire in 2008, which simmered through swampy peatland. Engineers ended up pumping 7.5 billion liters of water from lakes to flood the area. It took seven months to drown the fire.
If you’ve got a big air tanker that can drop huge amounts of water on a zombie fire, good for you. But it’s not going to work. “No one fights smoldering fires, which are massive, with air tankers,” says Rein. “If they do, they’re doing PR. They’re telling everyone, ‘Don’t worry, we have it!’ But they don’t. They don’t. When I see these airplanes in a smoldering fire, I know they are completely desperate.”
That’s because deluging a zombie isn’t guaranteed to quickly kill it. Say you’re pumping massive quantities across a peatland like firefighters did in North Carolina. That doesn’t mean the water is getting to the right places as it trickles underground. “It creates a channel, and the fire in that channel is suppressed, but then the water doesn’t go anywhere else,” Rein says. Other parts of the fire can fester untouched. And so the zombie lives on.
However, scientists have developed a new weapon in the battle against zombie fires. Read how it can work at Atlas Obscura.
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