April 12, 2012 – I’m standing on what used to be Route 61, the now closed off southern path into Centralia, Pennsylvania. Underneath the road, and much of the old town, is a fire that started burning in the coal mines 50 years ago (May 1962). Temperatures in certain areas of the fire/mines exceed 1000 degrees, signs of which are evident from the toxic fumes that can be seen from cracks in the pavement and rocky hillside next to the untouched cemetery. The town has been leveled except for a few stragglers (the houses and its occupants). The underground fire will burn for at least another 200 years.
The road behind me doubles as a canvas for the appropriately bored and somewhat immature visitors (the most recent of which was painted on March 17th, 2012) and proof that the only way to deal with the underground disaster was to leave. Empty beer containers, spray cans, and car parts interrupt the vulgar cartoons and existential phrases on the pavement, but not quite as impressively as the apathetic trees that now grow in the median.
I’m not even half a mile away from the newly constructed bypass that replaced this road and everything is silent and still. Even the animals seem to have moved on…
Several mounds of dirt and pavement with new growth block the old route to Centralia. It is an easy entrance to miss, and since I came from the north, I drove past it completely. Upon turning around I noticed a small, but larger than normal breakdown area opposite this sign. where I parked. Aside from this right arrow sign there was no indicator to discourage, warn, or inform me as to what had happened. So I went the rest of the way on foot.
The hot spots were easy to find: follow the smoke. The clouds came out of the ground in waves, and when one wave subsided I’d get a closer look/touch/smell. I was shocked how warm and wet the earth felt. The air was slightly sour and carried the evidence of power briefly before dissipating, leaving almost no trace of the chaos and instability below.
Apparently this connects to the underground activity, though it was cool to the touch, and full of trash. It was off the road about 50 feet, in the middle of the woods. Eerie to come across, regardless of what happened.
The people that I talked to near the cemetery grew up in a neighboring town. They spoke of the depression, poverty, and alcoholism that has choked people out of the region. There were no other people around to counter their claim.
One woman took what she believed was old mining equipment. She was their with her son (in his 20s) who apparently prefers to walk around the Centralia ruins at night, with friends. Supposedly the toxic gas permeating the ground is easier to see (and everywhere) at night.
The government spent over 50 million dollars to get people out of Centralia, to make it relatively safe but off-limits, and to prevent things from getting worse. Now there are streets that go nowhere, mountains of dirt and structural remains, and heavy machinery tracks zig-zagging over the landscape.
I first heard about the fire after college, in 2004. I was tempted to make the six hour round-trip drive just to explore it, despite not having a decent digital camera (and I was too annoyed by film after graduating to keep shooting 35 or 120).
For whatever reason the place stuck with me. I had told other people about it over the years, the story completely unknown to them. I was (and after visiting, still am) captivated by the idea that humans went down into the earth to take a resource, only to be forced out of the region by the power they were trying to harness.
But it made me wonder if there is anything like this anywhere else in the world. And if it is completely natural. Are underground fires in coal rich areas capable of producing (and subsequently extinguishing) themselves? Or natural gas? What would it take to create that first spark?