Strange Places: The Fires of Centralia, Penn.

Smoke rises from a deep fissure in the asphalt, foul fumes and deadly gases seeping up from the depths, where a smouldering fire burns eternally, or maybe just for a few hundred years.

Are you in hell?

No. You are in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a ghost town where the treacherous land can swallow you up without warning, where toxic fumes can choke the life out of you and where almost nothing remains of a town that once housed 2,000 people. There’s a plaque commemorating a buried time capsule, a church on a hill, cemeteries, and roads overgrown with grass and untrimmed trees, but aside from a few holdouts, the once thriving city has been deserted.

A fire burns beneath Centralia. It has burned for more than 45 years. It may burn for another 100 years or more.

Most people believe the fire was started by a group of people burning trash near an exposed coal vein or an open pit mine almost 50 years ago. The coal caught fire, and, unbeknownst to trash-burners, did not stop burning. Instead, the fire spread, underground, quietly, and for a while, no one even knew the fire continued.

Tom Coddington, owner of an Amoco station, was one of the first to experience the extent of the problem in 1979, when he found the temperature of his underground gas tanks had hit 172 degrees. He had to drain the tanks to stop the gas from exploding. Months later he was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from the fire and had to go to the hospital.

Then a 12-year-old boy’s grandmother’s back yard tried to eat him.

A gaping, fuming hole that seemed to lead to hell itself opened up while Todd Domboski was investigating the cause of the smoke coming from the ground in February 1981. He was rescued by his cousin, but it was very, very obvious something needed to be done.

During the following decades, the town was almost completely evacuated, its buildings mostly torn down, and its zip code was revoked.

Some Web sites feature a sign posted outside the town: Warning – Danger. Underground Mine Fire. Walking or driving in this area could result in serious injury or death. Dangerous gases are present. Ground is prone to sudden collapse.

You can still go to Centralia, and see the few tendrils of smoke rising from the gaps in the earth. According to some sources, the ground may feel warm beneath your feet, and snow can’t stick for long. You may smell sulphurous fumes and you are taking a genuine risk, because the fire is consuming the oxygen from the air, quietly and invisibly. Deadly. And of course there is a chance the ground could open up beneath your feet and send you plunging into the depths, where the fire still burns.

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