Discover the Longest Burning Fire in the World (Over 6,000 Years!)

Fire and black smoke. Fire in landfill. Smoke in forest. Illegal landfill. Thick black smoke.
© Oleg Kopyov/Shutterstock.com

Written by Larissa Smith

Updated: June 21, 2023

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Burning Mountain is an iconic geological phenomenon in New South Wales, Australia. It is renowned for being the longest burning fire in the world, having been alight for more than 6,000 years! In this article, we’ll explore the history of Burning Mountain, its unique features, and the environmental impact of one of Earth’s most remarkable geological sites.

History of Burning Mountain

Burning Mountain is a part of the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve, which is overseen by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Burning Mountain has been burning for over 6,000 years and is believed to have been ignited by a coal seam that runs beneath the mountain’s surface. There is no record of how the fire started, but Australian explorers, the Leyland Brothers, reported:

The Aborigines named the mountain Wingen, which means ‘fire.’ Their explanation of the origin of the burning mountain was that one day, a tribesman was lighting a fire on the mountainside when he was carried off deep into the earth by The Evil One. Unable to escape, he used his fire stick to set the mountain alight so that the smoke might warn others to keep away.”

According to the NSW Government’s Environment and Heritage Group, suggested potential ignition sources include:

  • lightning strike
  • Aboriginal land management practices
  • campfires
  • natural forest fires

However, the widely accepted theory is that the oxidation of iron pyrites in the sulfurous coal material produced enough heat to ignite the coal.

Aboriginal Australian adult man showing fire making craft on Aboriginal culture show in the tropical far north of  Queensland, Australia.

There are various myths about what ignited the fire, including Aborigine’s tale of a tribesman starting the fire with a fire stick.

©ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

More History of Burning Mountain

The Wonaruah tribe may have heated cote stones on the burning vent area work sites, making the rock material more pliable for reworking. Additionally, the region had a rich source of recrystallized, glassy slag, which, when turned into tools, often provides a sharp edge but is delicate and susceptible to blunting.

Burning Mountain, then known as Mount Wingen, was first observed by a non-Native person in 1828 when a nearby farm worker named Smart asserted that the region had an active volcano. The phenomenon was the subject of extensive debate, observation, and discussion before the renowned geologist Rev. C.P.N. Wilton, in 1829, properly identified it as a burning coal seam.

What Is a Coal Seam Fire?

coal seam fire is an underground fire that burns in a coal seam. This phenomenon occurs due to a buildup of heat and oxygen in the coal seam, which leads to the spontaneous ignition and combustion of the coal.

Coal seam fires can last for many years, with some even burning for centuries or even millennia. They are often found in coal mines but can also occur in natural coal deposits, where they can sometimes even burn unnoticed underground for long periods. This can be dangerous as it can cause ground subsidence, release toxic gases, and ultimately create hazardous conditions for those living there.

A fuming ground fissure vents noxious gas from an underground coal seam fire on Smoky Mountain, UT. The gas leaves black petroleum deposits around the vent.

A coal seam in the Smoky Mountains, Utah.

©rawaccess/Shutterstock.com

Aside from underground combustion, coal seam fires can also occur on the surface of the Earth because of human activities such as wildfires, coal mining operations, and electrical sparks. Coal seam fires are a significant environmental problem, emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases (such as methane and carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere while also causing damage to ecosystems and endangering human life.

There are other coal seam fires across the world besides Burning Mountain, including:

  • Centralia, Pennsylvania – a coal mine fire that has been burning since 1962
  • Jharia, Jharkhand, India – a coal field fire burning for nearly a century
  • The Laurel Run mine fire – burning since 1915
  • New Straitsville – burning since 1884
Graffiti highway in Centralia, Pennsylvania is a world-famous abandoned coal mining town that has been burning underground since 1963.

The coal seam in Centralia, Pennsylvania, has forced residents to abandon their homes.

©WhiteHotRanch/Shutterstock.com

Unique Features of Burning Mountain

Burning Mountain has a unique set of features.

  • The fire is currently burning 65 to 100 feet underground.
  • The fire at Mount Wingen is spreading in a southerly direction at a speed of 3.2 feet a year.
  • The coal seam is 6.5 feet thick.
  • The fire covers an area of about 4 miles.
  • There is no visible evidence of a burning fire, except some smoke, white ash, a sulfuric smell, warm ground, and no vegetation in the area where the fire is.
  • The temperature beneath the burning coal is around 1652°F.
  • The average temperature of the fumes escaping through the vents is between 212°F and 572°F.

Environmental Impact of Burning Man

The environmental impact of Burning Mountain is significant. The burning coal seam has impacted the local wildlife and vegetation in several ways. Animals have been displaced by the fire’s heat, smoke, and ash, while plants have been killed or stunted due to the lack of water and nutrients in the soil caused by the fire.

Plants

Unfortunately, there is no plant life at the vent site due to chemicals and the temperature. Therefore, an area of about 1.2 acres has been stripped of vegetation. Plans to reintroduce vegetation in areas where the ground has been cooled are underway. Plant colonization in the area includes the following plants:

  • Narrow-leaved ironbark (Eucalyptus crebra)
  • Rusty fig (Ficus rubiginosa)
  • Silky oak (Grevillea robusta)
  • Blunt-beard heath (Leucopogon muticus)

Animals

There are various animals found in Burning Mountain Nature Reserve. A few examples include:

  • 31 species of bird recorded in the area
  • Common ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)
  • Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
  • Eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus)
  • Wallaroo (Macropus robustus)
  • Swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor)
  • Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) – the only ground-dwelling mammal seen in the reserve
  • Bats (Chiroptera)
  • Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaia textilis textilis)
  • Bearded dragon (Amphibolurus barbatus)
  • Copper-tailed skink (Ctenotus taeniolatus)
Peters dwarf epauletted fruit bat hanging in fruit tree

Plants and animals are being reintroduced into the Burning Mountain Reserves. Bats are a common sight in the area.

©Dave Montreuil/Shutterstock.com

Conclusion

Burning Mountain is truly a remarkable natural phenomenon. What makes this fire even more remarkable is its unique environment and geological features, which have helped preserve and contain the fire.

The environmental impacts of the fire have been significant, leading to air pollution and displacing local wildlife. However, thanks to ongoing efforts by authorities to protect the site, Burning Mountain remains stable and shows no sign of being extinguished anytime soon.


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About the Author

Larissa Smith is a writer for A-Z Animals with years of experience in plant care and wildlife. After years spent in the South African bush while studying Nature Conservation, she found her way to writing about animals and plants in her work. She hopes to inspire others to appreciate and care for the precious world around them. Larissa lives in Florida with her two sons, a miniature golden retriever named Pupples, and a colorful succulent garden. In her spare time, she is tending to her garden, adventuring with her kids, and hosting “Real Housewives” watch parties with her friends.

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