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Eternal Flame draws crowds to Orchard Park

The wisp of fire flickers in a hollow behind a forest waterfall. The once-obscure marvel known as the Eternal Flame, located on a shale creek bed in Chestnut Ridge Park, is attracting increasing numbers of admiring hikers, scientists and even a crew from a new, yet-to-be-named Travel Channel show about unusual places.

“It’s like the flame is coming out of the rock. It’s so cool,” said Shelby Marra, a student at the University at Buffalo who hiked in on a recent afternoon in celebration of a friend’s birthday. “I can’t stop looking at it.”

Marra was one of several hikers alternately posing for pictures, gazing at and puzzling over the mysterious flame, a golden orange sprout a few inches tall licking defiantly at the wet stone. Near her, a man from Saudi Arabia said it seemed like a miracle. “This: amazing,” he said with a broad smile and an apology for his limited English.

More people have been coming to see the waterfall flame since research published last year declared it a “world record” natural gas “seep,” or leak, for the high-concentration ethane and propane – about 1 kilogram of gas a day – released from shale somewhere beneath the crack.

With visitors like the Travel Channel crew, geologists and world travelers making the trip to Orchard Park, the Erie County Parks Department has made the half-mile trail more accessible. A big sign, about two years old, marks the trailhead at the Corral parking lot on Route 277. New pictures of little flames mark the trees along the path so people can find their way down steps and over roots to the creek bed that leads to the flame.

“It is one of the most beautiful and fascinating gas manifestations … I have ever seen,” wrote Italian geologist Giuseppe Etiope in an email from Finland last week. He works for Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and travels the world studying gas seepages. He even sent a photo of the world’s biggest eternal flame at a mountain in Azerbaijan called “Yarnardag.”

Yet, Etiope said, the small Chestnut Ridge Park seep that burns when ignited – sometimes hikers must relight it with a lighter – is uniquely beautiful.

Another regional “eternal” flame was considered by Etiope and his collaborators in Clarington, Pa., but it seems to be from an abandoned gas well. The flame at Chestnut Ridge, by contrast, is naturally occurring. A geologist working with Etiope hypothesized that prehistoric people may have had a hand in its origins.

Before Europeans arrived, people could have carved the opening to make it easier to light, said Arndt Schimmelmann, an Indiana University geologist.

The abundance of natural gas in Pennsylvania and New York leads to many leaks through breaks in the ground. They’re especially easy to spot along shallow creeks and waterways because they bubble.

The Chestnut Ridge seep “looks very natural, but I think it was made by people. But people who actually recognized there was a seepage. … They were very observant people. They knew how to make fire,” Schimmelmann said. “They must have figured out, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place to have an eternal flame.’ ”

Schimmelmann’s research about the flame was part of a project funded by the federal Department of Energy to look into naturally escaping gas and to better understand how it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Underground pressure forces gas to leek from shale. While there are no plans to tap for fuel near Chestnut Ridge, “fracking” could possibly destroy the seepage by relieving the pressure. “I think you would kill the flame,” Schimmelmann said.

The shale around Chestnut Ridge – possibly part of a shale deposit known as Rhinestreet – is too shallow to meet the state’s proposed fracking regulations, said Robert Jacobi, a part-time University at Buffalo geology professor who studies faults and consults with oil and gas companies and environmental firms.

Still, he said, the eternal flame is a striking example of the many gas leaks all over Western New York. “We found that virtually every fault is leaking gas,” Jacobi said.

During research about 25 years ago, Jacobi met a man living near Letchworth Park who used garden hoses to channel gas from a leak to heat his house. He also has friend living near Ellicotville who can set fire to water running from her tap.

“That was like fireworks,” he said.

Jacobi is one of the experts contacted for his perspective by a Travel Channel production company filming at the park last week. The waterfall flame is a perfect fit for a series now in production about unusual, out-of-the-way places, said Lauren Williams, supervising producer with San-Francisco-based Indigo Films.

The flame’s story and science will be one of 15 hourlong episodes hosted by Tory Belleci of “MythBusters” fame.

“We’re always looking far and wide for these unique and interesting things,” Williams said. “I don’t know of any place like this in the world.”

North Tonawanda waterfall aficionado Scott Ensminger has collected historical accounts of flaming local waters. At his website, he posted a selfie from a seep in Pipe Creek in West Falls. He is lying down, magician-like, by three flames he lit after putting stones around them to get a steady flow of gas.

“I’ve always been interested in strange stuff outdoors,” he said.

Ensminger, one of the authors of “Waterfalls of New York State,” tracked down accounts of other watery flames that seem defunct. One is a bygone tourist attraction near Dufferin Islands on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Until the 1880s, a barrel capped a leak that blazed when lit. A historical marker in the small town of Bristol, near Canandaigua, commemorates the “burning spring” stream where, in 1669, Senecas led French explorer Robert LaSalle to a flame as high as a man.

“That must have been something to see,” Ensminger said.

He has mixed feelings about all the attention Chestnut Ridge’s eternal flame has been getting lately. When he first started hiking in the park 15 years ago, there weren’t as many people around.

“It’s like there’s a special, unique place to visit. If you tell people about it, the less unique it becomes,” he said. “Before it was nice and quiet and you had the place to yourself.”