GILLETTE -- A skiff of snow covered the hills of the Pee Gee Ranch as the morning's first light pushed through the gray March sky.
Any hint of a breeze was blocked by the hills surrounding the Powder River as it stretched through the center of the ranch, allowing a column of smoke to rise steadily into the air along the river's bank.
The distinctive smell of burning coal was palpable long before the source of the rising smoke could be seen. The smoke steadily churned out of a black scorched area on the river's bank.
It is the only area of the 28,000-acre ranch north of Arvada not covered in snow.
The smoke comes from an underground coal seam that has been burning for more than 70 years on the Pee Gee ranch, located just east of the Campbell County border in Sheridan County.
Kelby Kretschman has been the foreman on the ranch for nine years. He suspects the fire is burning under about 40 acres, but he can't be sure. He doesn't like to spend a lot of time in that area of the ranch and neither do cattle.
"It sounds like you're riding on a pumpkin," Kretschman said. "The ground is hollow underneath and then it caves in and sloughs because it burns the coal away and there is nothing left to fill the void."
Kretschman had a couple of calves fall into a muddy spot in the area near the fire a couple of years ago and burn their hind legs, but for the most part, cattle steer clear of the area.
"Sometimes you can see the cherry-hot coals on some of the seams near the river," Kretschman said.
The burning coal also tends to start grass fires in the summer. A hint of a fire line dug by a dozer can be seen about 15 feet from the smoke, but the coal underneath has since burned out and the fire line has collapsed.
Kretschman has heard from longtime area ranchers that a dozer was completely lost into the ground on the Pee Gee Ranch when they tried to put the fire out in the 1960s.
Kretschman's problem is nothing unique in the Powder River Basin. Underground coal fires have long been an issue. At times, it was not uncommon to see the hills surrounding Gillette dotted with columns of smoke, the distinctive burning coal smell wafting over the town as the coal burned.
A coal fire under Allen Mooney's land on Echeta Road just north of Gillette was put out about 15 years ago.
"That is the second time it had burned," Mooney said. "When I was young, it was on fire and they had somebody come in and put it out."
In fact, the coal on Mooney's land has burned at least three times in the past 100 years. It was the site of the Felix mine, started by the railroad in the late 1800s to supply trains with coal as they rumbled through Campbell County. The underground mine was abandoned in the late 1800s, but wasn't reclaimed.
"I think the iron is still in the mine, the rail and stuff they used to bring out (the coal), according to my father," Mooney said.
Mooney's ranch wasn't the only old mine that started coal fires.
"There was coal mined everywhere. Every ranch had a canyon or draw somewhere in it where they dug coal," Mooney said. "I've got a picture of my grandfather and a team backed up to a cut bank on our place where they were loading coal with potato forks."
The intact mine shafts allowed air to get to the coal, which started on fire in 1911. The Felix fire was first put out in the summers of 1934 to 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Herculean effort by the government to extinguish underground coal fires around Gillette in the 1930s.
The CCC workers dug out the fire and also diverted a nearby creek into the mine to flood it, according to CCC documents.
It didn't permanently fix the problem and the old mine was burning again when Mooney was growing up in the 1950s. The last effort to put out the most recent Felix fire was in the 1990s.
Between a half acre and an acre of the ranch never had snow on it because of the fire, Mooney said. But he remembers the smell the most, "just a continuous stench from the coal burning."
Mooney, 64, also remembers a coal fire just north of what is now the Foothills subdivision where he used to hunt rabbits.
"That would be a good place to go when it was cold because you could sit on the ground and there was warmth coming up from the coal fire," Mooney said.
54 at one time
Coal fires are not a thing of the past. They continue to be a problem throughout the Powder River Basin, said Ed Heffern, a geologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He has studied coal fires in the Powder River Basin extensively.
"I know of about 80 active or historic coal fires in the Powder River Basin, both in Wyoming and Montana," Heffern said.
Heffern worked with the Campbell County Fire Department to put out a series of coal fires in northern Campbell County in 2002.
Those coal seams were ignited by grass and tree fires, said Rich Hauber, a former Campbell County firefighter who worked on the coal fires.
"At one time, we had 54 coal seams on fire," Hauber said. "Between the BLM and the county, we spent two months and a lot of money with heavy equipment digging them out and reburying them."
The roots of the trees in that area of the county are actually imbedded in the coal seams, Heffern said. When the trees caught on fire, they burned down to the roots, which then ignited the coal.
The BLM is now working on several coal fires north of Sheridan, where there was a lot of underground coal mining in the 1800s.
Underground coal fires actually have been burning in the Powder River Basin for more than 4 million years, Heffern said. The burning coal melts the layers just above it into hard rock called "scoria" or "clinker." The BLM can estimate the amount of coal that has burned from the amount of clinker around.
The clinker also doesn't erode as fast as surrounding soil and protects the soil under it from eroding as fast.
"That is why you have this little red-capped layer on all the hills around Gillette," Heffern said.
The BLM has mapped about 1,500 square miles of clinker in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. That works out to about 47 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal burned in prehistoric times.
The line of coal mines in southern Campbell County actually is built on the far eastern edge of the mineable coal. All of the coal east of the mines already has burned, creating the scoria-rich Rochelle Hills.
On particularly cold, calm days, Kretschman can smell the burning coal from his home about 10 miles away. He doesn't expect the column of smoke to go away anytime soon.
Methane companies interested in drilling on the Pee Gee Ranch in recent years have considered putting the fire out, but changed their minds after finding out what it would take to do it. So for now, Kretschman said there is not much he can do but deal with the smell and the smoke as it rises along the Powder River.