The hole opened up on a private property in Midway, Arkansas, nearly a month ago – on Sept. 17 – and yet it is still stumping investigators. People were quick to offer theories as to what caused the sudden explosion: Was it space junk, meteorites, maybe a gas leak?
So far, none of the guesses have proved to be correct, Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He also ruled out another wild explanation – Satan.
“As far as the spiritual Satan goes, we’ve ruled that out. … He didn’t come up and stick his pitchfork in the ground and blow that hole out,” Pendergrass joked.
Donald Tucker, chief of the Midway Fire Protection District, said the hole acted “like a chimney,” noting that it’s particularly suspicious the fire eventually just stopped.
“It was drawing air from a lower elevation. … Whatever it was, it burned up its fuel and went out,” he told the newspaper.
The hole didn’t just open up suddenly. It has been around for at least 10 years, according to a landscaper.
“It’s kind of like an old groundhog hole, burrow, or armadillo’s,” Pendergrass described. “But it’s been there a long time.”
Geologists scoped the hole with a camera and determined it was likely created by an animal because it extended horizontally before intercepting a nearby drainage ditch, according to an Arkansas Geological Survey report.
Gas company Black Hills Energy, which was asked to help inspect the site, confirmed it didn’t find any utility or fuel lines leaking in the area.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality also examined several underground fuel storage tanks in Midway to ensure they were sealed.
“Based on ADEQ inspections it does not appear that any of these tanks contributed to the fire,” the agency said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Investigators are planning on sending soil samples from the burnt hole to a lab in hopes they’ll be able to identify the root of the explosion.
“The soil samples should clear up any possibility of gasoline or anything else put down the hole or migrating groundwater contaminate such as gasoline,” Ty Johnson of the Geological Survey said.
Jim Sierzchula, Baxter County’s emergency management coordinator and the fire chief for Grover township, said a motorist saw the flames and called 911 about 4:30 a.m. Monday.
Sierzchula said he thinks methane may have been the fuel, but he doesn’t know what sparked the ignition. Pendergrass said it could have been a lit cigarette tossed from a passing vehicle.
Methane gas is colorless, odorless and flammable. It’s a product of biological decomposition of organic matter and of the carbonization of coal.
“The thing is it was a clean burn,” Siezchula said. “It was a very low-hydrocarbon fuel, let’s put it that way. It really wasn’t getting the right amount of oxygen because the burn was orange instead of blue.”
Concerning the hole, he said, “There was absolutely no soot.”
Pendergrass said Donald Tucker, the Midway fire chief, checked the temperature in the hole shortly after the fire and it was 780 degrees. When Tucker arrived on the scene, the flames were still about 8 feet high, Pendergrass said.
The county judge said conditions were perfect early Monday for methane entrapment.
“Light rain had happened the night before,” he said. “Foggy, misty air could have trapped methane.”
“What ignited it? I don’t know,” Sierzchula said. “It could have been lightning. There were storms in the area.”
Sierzchula said the fire burst out from what appeared to be a groundhog hole.
“There was an existing hole there,” he said. “We may find a burned up groundhog in there.”