WATSON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) - Neighbors say that smoke from an underground fire that has burned for nine months is making them sick, sometimes forcing them to leave their homes.
The fire is burning in peat moss -- the mass of tightly woven roots just beneath the surface -- in a swampy field at the southwest corner of 124th Avenue and 14th Street in Allegan County's Watson Township near Hopkins.
The farmer who works the land, Frank Doezema, says he believes it started in December when workers were burning brush and that it must have smoldered underground all winter and spring.
He said it flared up in July when the ground dried. Neighbors say it fills the air and their homes with thick, acrid smoke. Flames are rarely visible.
"It kind of looks like the apocalypse," neighbor Cheryl Johnson said.
The fire, burning at up to 1,200 degrees, prompted the county to put up signs warning motorists of "low visibility."
"Our entire house smells like a fire pit, it has that stink," said Johnson, who lives in one of a handful of homes across the street. "You can probably hear a little bit in my respiratory that I have a cough, but it's the headaches that are the worst. I have migraines already and so every day I wake up with a migraine and a lot of people around here are waking up with headaches."
Another neighbor said she's suffering chest congestion and coughing. She said she stays often at the homes or friends or relatives when the smoke is worst.
Hopkins Fire Chief Tim McKinnon said his volunteer firefighters have tried four times to put out the fire over the last month, dumping a total of 35,000 gallons of water on it.
"We're trying to get down into the ground and saturate the ground and put the fire out, and it's burning underground," he said. "It's below what we can reach with our hoses."
He said peat moss fires have been known to burn up to four years.
"The smell of that smoke is in those people's houses," McKinnon said. "I feel for them, but there's not a lot more I can do."
On Wednesday, the farmer used excavators to turn the peat moss into the water table, hoping to snuff it out.
"It's frustrating for us, too, because we don't want unhappy neighbors," said Doezema, who owns the farm with a brother. "No one around here's ever fought one, this generation of firefighters, and we've never had it. I never even knew it was a possibility."
Neighbors said that by Thursday morning, the fire was down to four hot spots. By the evening though, smoke was pouring from at least eight spots, with flames flickering in one location.
"There's two new hot spots since this morning," Cheryl Johnson said, before noticing even more smoke. "See where the smoke is, there's one."
Doezema said he plans to work with an expert next week who will use a new solution that reportedly can snuff out peat moss fires.
The Norton Shores Police Department is reporting three reports of stolen snowblowers this week.
About a dozen people were displaced.
One person was arrested after a threatening comment resulted in a school district briefly locking down its schools Friday morning.