WYOMING

Taxpayers may have a fire on their hands if a land-swap proposal goes through. In the trade, the Bureau of Land Management would give the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Co. 2,045 acres in Sheridan County, Wyo., believed to hold about 107 million tons of coal. In exchange, the BLM would receive 5,923 acres along the Tongue River - including the Welch Ranch, home to an underground coal-seam fire that federal mining officials call an immediate threat to human health and safety.

"Coal-seam fires are notoriously difficult and expensive to extinguish," says Evan Green with the Abandoned Mine Lands Division. If the cause of the fire can be tied to mining, then money to control it may be available through a program funded by reclamation fees on coal mined in Wyoming.

But some residents fear the public will be saddled with responsibility for the fire. As flames consume the underground coal, the ground above it becomes vulnerable to subsidence and fissures; it cracks open and heat and gases are released. Sheridan resident Frank Mommsen says, "I can't believe the public wants to own this fire."

But Mike Karbs of the BLM says the land will be good for hikers and rafters who want to access the Little Snake River and Tongue River. "It's an opportunity to acquire multiple-use and recreation land," he says.