China's biggest coalfield fire, which is said to have been burning for about 100 years, is still raging in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, sending tens of thousands of toxic gases to the sky over Urumqi every year.
The coalfield fire, or Sulfur Valley fire, lies 40 kilometers southwest of Urumqi, capital of the coal-rich region, with its burning area topping 183 hectares.
The fire has sunken the ground, baked rocks red and left cracks everywhere from which heavy smoke billows and blazes gush, making the surface as hot as over 100 degrees Celsius.
Local people said the fire had been smoldering underground for 100 years and kept releasing sulfur gas -- a reason for the area's name.
Efforts to put out the Sulfur Valley fire began in 2000 when a team was convened by the Xinjiang region to battle the fire.
"There is no technical problem to prevent the fire in the Sulfur Valley being put out by the end of this July," said an officer from the fire-fighting team.
However, 36 coalfield fires on a total of 826 hectares are still scattered along the northern and southern sides of Mt. Tianshan (Heavenly Mountain) in the region, burning 10.03 million tons of coal into ashes and racking up economic losses of 1 billion yuan (US$120 million) every year.
Scientists said some of the coalfield area has been on fire for tens of thousands of years, judging from the sintered rocks of the glacial accumulation.
The major cause of the coalfield fires lies in violent geological movements along the Mt. Tianshan area, said Cai Zhongyong, general engineer of the fire-fighting team.
Cai said the disordered coalpits using outdated technology and without proper fire prevention measures have also added to the fire-fighting difficulty.
So far, China has invested 180 million yuan (US$22 million) since 1983 to extinguish five major coalfield fires in the region.
Xinjiang, the major victim of coalfield fires, worked out a fire-fighting program last year, hoping to extinguish all the coalfield fires in the region by 2018.
(Xinhua News Agency February 7, 2003)