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The Lost Mountain Fire: Kentucky's Underground Hell

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

When you think of Kentucky, usually images of green forests, rolling hills, pastures, open skies, blue lakes, and rivers come to mind. However, for some people in areas of Eastern Kentucky, they may think about chasms of underground fire, toxic vapors, and rust-colored streams. Today, we will learn about the Lost Mountain Fire: Kentucky’s Underground Hell.

Deep underneath Eastern Kentucky’s ‘Lost Mountain’, a fire has been burning for more than 50 years. Toxic gas billows out from underground vents into the air, and surrounding streams have turned orange. The ground is unstable and can completely collapse at any time, trapping anyone who dares to venture into the area to a horrible fate.

Officially known as the “Ruth Mullins fire" - named for the woman who first discovered and reported the fire, as is tradition - it can also be referred to as the Lost Mountain Fire. Several of these coal seam fires can be found close to Hazard, KY in Perry and Breathitt County. Many residents were evacuated and had to permanently relocate to escape the many dangers a fire like this can present. Deadly toxic fumes, contaminated water, and the ground collapsing under their homes are just some of the consequences Mountaintop removal coal mining inflicts upon Kentucky residents.

“"No one seems to know how long it’s been burning, how much coal it has consumed, how it started or the dangers associated with it." [Earth Magazine]

Countless miners have died in the coal mines of Kentucky due to buildup of deadly gases, fires, and collapses. While a collapse is deadly to everyone inside of the mine, fires are hazardous to everyone in the surrounding area and can have detrimental effects on the local communities and ecosystems.

Smoke and gas billow out vents in the ground and cave entrances, turning spider webs into dark, tar-covered natural warning signs to keep out. Too much gas can build up underground and cause massive explosions and destruction. The vents where gas escapes help to prevent explosions and the ground giving way to the fiery vapors, coal, black smoke, and tar that wait below.

The Ruth Mullins Fire has been studied by many scientists including groups from University of Kentucky, Morehead University, and the US Geological Surveyors since 2007. Some goals of these studies include ways to extinguish the ever-burning coal fires and revitalize the surrounding ecosystems. The environment of these may never be able to support nature and wildlife like before. The impact from these coal fires on climate change is currently being studied but thought to be significant.

Lots of coal fires wreak the most havoc in remote or poverty-stricken regions in which low population’s health crises aren’t heard. Residents are forced to evacuate, but groundwater is never tested and other efforts to revitalize and protect against events such as these go underfunded. However, thanks to scientific studies, a growing recognition of coal fires’ threat against the planet is starting to be recognized, and hopefully more resources will be provided to stop these disasters. Unfortunately it’s much easier said than done.

As the Ruth Mullins Fire migrates toward Kentucky’s Highway 80, we can only hope a solution is found before a coal seam possibly burns through the road, cracking open the asphalt, and swallowing people and cars into Kentucky’s Underground Hell.


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