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Fire Down Below: Centralia

I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.

According to most stories, a trash pit was set aflame to get rid of refuse, and the folks who lit the fire didn’t realize that the pit was connected to the vein of coal on top of which the town of Centralia sat and upon and off which most of the town’s residents made a living as miners. Whatever money there’d been in being a coal miner went up quickly as the vein caught and the fire spread throughout the underground caverns. No one was hurt, at least not physically, which if nothing else made it less tragic than the shaft collapse that happened in nearby Avondale some years earlier.

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There was no mining to be done after that, though there was plenty of fire fighting going on. The mines were flushed with water. Chunks of flaming coal were excavated. Shafts were backfilled and redrilled, but the fire refused to be tamed. In 1983, as the fire continued to spread, an engineering study was released that stated the fire could very well be burning for another hundred years or more and consume an underground area of roughly 3,700 acres. This spelled pretty dire news for the town of Centralia. Living on top of a raging mine fire was generally considered to be bad for the locals. Smoke, steam, and toxic fumes crept up through the soil. Water became contaminated. Trees died in droves and sat in barren patches of blackened, smoking soil that made the whole town look like it ought to be criss-crossed with trenches full of German and British troops locked in a Western Front stalemate. And then the sinkholes and fissures began opening. One nearly swallowed a young boy whole, and people started thinking that maybe Centralia was a lost cause.

I pressed my hand against the surface of the road. It was a cold day, gray and sickly with a trickle of limp silver-white sun. Damp fog clung to the scrub-spotted hills and mixed freely with the smoke boiling up from the fire. The ground felt warm, but that was probably just my imagination. I could hear Ellie shuffling around somewhere beyond the murkiness, a hint of a shadow in this sulfuric mess that stank of wet weeds, mud, and rotten eggs.

We covered ground carelessly. Each crack in the earth was a warning sign to stay away, as well as a seductive hand beckoning us to come, come peer into the mystery, and I was like a little boy enticed by a carnival stripper standing half-cloaked by the dirty linen door of her tent, dutifully following the finger and gazing slack-jawed at the forbidden treasures within. In the case of the mine fire fissures, however, all I got was a load of smoke and dirt in the face. I assumed one got a decidedly different experience when gazing at the forbidden treasures of a carnival stripper, but I’d never had the opportunity to compare and contrast — not for lack of desire.

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My car was parked at one end of a posted stretch of road that used to be part of highway 61. The highway department built a new stretch of road away from the portion that was collapsing into a fiery pit of doom, presumably because it was judged that roads collapsing into fiery pits of doom were generally unsuited for automobile traffic, light or otherwise. At either end of the condemned road, they’d piled dirt and stuck a sign in warning of toxic fumes, sinkholes, and the generally inhospitable conditions waiting to engulf anyone foolish enough to venture past the dirt mounds and explore the ruined road. There were actually quite a few of these people every year, and though photographic evidence exists to suggest that most were just as thoughtless and foolhardy as me, the Centralia mine fire had yet to claim any lives.

When, in the 1980s, it became clear that the fire wasn’t going to burn itself out, that it was apparently feasting on a seemingly endless smorgasbord of rich anthracite coal, the government began buying up the land and condemning the property. Houses were razed, and what had once been a bustling burg became a ghost town. Neighborhood roads bent and curved around houses that were no longer there. Driveways, cracked and green with disrepair and the weeds that manage against all odds to force their way up through solid slabs of concrete, lead to empty lots where once there had been a garage to greet them.

We climbed a small hill and stood staring down at what was currently ground zero for the fire. Somewhere down there it still smoldered. Or raged. Honestly, I didn’t know a whole lot about underground coal mine fires, so whether they smoldered or raged was unknown to me. I imagined it was a little bit of both, depending on the particular conditions for that day. Above the fire, raging or smoldering, sat what was left of the St. Peter Paul Orthodox Cemetery. The mine fire burning somewhere below it meant that the grass was yellow and dying, and here and there fissures in the ground billowed with smoke. It was the sort of landscape you’d see on late-night television, usually in black and white movies that involved a hideous Frankenstein monster lumbering across it. Pressure and the occasional upheaval of ground had set several of the tombstones at curious angles, toppled others.

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Most of the residents of Centralia left town, either by choice or because of lack of choices. By the time we rolled into town, there were only four houses and a shuttered, deserted-looking auto parts store remaining. In the front yard of one of the houses someone had strung a banner between two gnarled trees. “We Love Centralia” it said in glittery letters. It was certainly a sweeter sentiment than the Federal sign about toxic fumes and sinkholes.

Among the very few who remained in Centralia, it was assumed that, despite evidence to the contrary, the government could extinguish the mine fire if it really wanted to, either by digging a system of trenches or, more recently suggested, by flooding the tunnels with flame retardant foam. However, if this was done while private citizens still owned chunks of the land, the government would be doing the work for private industry. If, however, the land was fully vacated, then the government could claim it, put out the fire, then sell the land and the mine back for a handsome profit. It didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility to me, but my firm belief in the deceitful nature of the government was well-balanced by the equally firm belief that the government was, by and large, a surprisingly large collection of idiots and incompetents with not a lick of sense, perhaps genuinely incapable of figuring out how to put out the fire.

Whatever the case, a few people remained behind and strung up banners to show their support for the dead remnants of their town. I thought they should find a way to make a tourist trade out of all the people who came up specifically because there was a fire burning.