Meteorite, Satan ruled out, but fire in hole remains mystery for Arkansas town

Meteorites, methane and the devil have been ruled out as the cause of a flaming hole in the ground at Midway.

Mickey Pendergrass, the county judge in Baxter County, said officials are still investigating the mysterious Midway hole that flared into a spectacular 12-foot flame early on the morning of Sept. 17, then burned at about 8 feet high for more than 40 minutes.

"As far as the spiritual Satan goes, we've ruled that out," Pendergrass said. "He didn't come up and stick his pitchfork in the ground and blow that hole out."

Pendergrass said he had suspected methane, but investigators have found no source of it, such as decaying organic matter.

Pendergrass said the hole had been there for at least 10 years, according to a man who used to mow the grass on the private property along Arkansas 5. So it wasn't caused by the recent impact of a meteorite.

"It's kind of like an old groundhog hole, burrow, or armadillo's," he said. "But it's been there a long time."

The hole, he said, is about the size of a volleyball.

Jim Sierzchula, the Baxter County emergency management director, and geologists from the Arkansas Geological Survey investigated Sept. 21.

"They scoped the hole with a camera and determined it extended horizontal before intercepting a nearby drainage ditch about 10 feet away and 3 feet below the ground surface," according to a report from Ty Johnson and Danny Rains with the Geological Survey. "This was determined to be an animal hole."

Black Hills Energy also participated in the investigation.

"Although Black Hills Energy does not provide natural gas service in Midway, the local fire department contacted us to assist with their fire investigation," according to a statement from the company. "Our technicians responded and detected no natural gas in the area."

Pendergrass said there are no utility or fuel lines in the area that might have been leaking.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality checked four underground fuel storage tanks in the area, two that are in use at Midway Citgo and Deli, and two that are capped and basically empty at Gearhead Garage.

"Based on ADEQ inspections it does not appear that any of these tanks contributed to the fire," according to a statement from the agency. "We can't speculate about other possible causes because we have not been trained to do investigations about such scenarios."

Donald Tucker, chief of the Midway Fire Protection District, said the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality also tested three above-ground gasoline tanks and two propane tanks, and determined that none of them were leaking.

The fire was on private property in front of a billboard advertising Dr. Win Moore, a surgeon at Baxter Regional Medical Center's Bone & Joint Clinic in Mountain Home who said he has gotten a considerable amount of free publicity from the fire.

Pendergrass said the billboard wasn't damaged.

Initially, county officials were worried that a leak could cause other fires around Midway, which is 6 miles northwest of Mountain Home.

"We've kind of relieved our fears about it being a danger to the surrounding neighborhood," Pendergrass said.

He said it doesn't appear that anyone got photographs or video of the fire, which started about 4:30 a.m.

Tucker said he was too busy to take pictures.

"I was trying to keep everybody away from it," he said. "A deal like that, you don't know what's safe or what's not. I had a couple of firefighters who wanted to get up there and take a look at it too close."

Tucker said the flame was about 8 feet high when he arrived shortly after the fire started.

"It was burning red-orange color, about 2 feet in diameter," he said. "It came up about crotch high and spread out to that width."

Tucker said he initially thought it was a broken gas line, but that wasn't the case.

Just before the fire retreated into the hole, it shrunk to a flame about waist high for a few minutes, Tucker said.

"Then it just went down the hole and went out," he said. "For a little bit, there was just a little bit of glow of fire down in the hole."

Tucker said the vent to the creek provided oxygen for the fire.

"The hole acted as a chimney," he said. "It was drawing air from a lower elevation. ... Whatever it was, it burned up its fuel and went out."

Pendergrass said someone could have set the fire on purpose.

"What kind of fuel did they use to make it so clean and no soot and no damage? And what was used to strike the fire to start with? There are just too many questions for it not to have been done on purpose, whether it was for fun or for giggles," Pendergrass said. "Somebody will talk someday and have to brag about it, and then we'll find out who did it."

Pendergrass said soil samples have been taken from the hole but have yet to be analyzed by a laboratory. Johnson, who works in the geohazards section of the Geological Survey, said soil may provide the clue.

"The soil samples should clear up any possibility of gasoline or anything else put down the hole or migrating groundwater contaminate such as gasoline," he said.

Tucker said it was an unusual morning Sept. 17.

"I've never seen it before. I hope I never see it again," he said. "What it was, I have no idea."

Metro on 10/01/2018

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