Twelve-year-old Todd Domboski was intrigued by the thin wisps of smoke. They seemed to coil out of the ground from a grassy patch near a tree by his house in the rural town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Domboski wandered over to investigate — and without warning, the ground gave way beneath his feet.
"Since the scientific evidence was ambiguous, people took sides and fought one another over what to do."
The young boy screamed as he plummeted into a hidden pit, his body temporarily consumed by smoke and hot mud. Flames leapt up at him from a chasm below the sludge-like mud at which the screaming Domboski clawed, desperately fighting to stay alive. Like quicksand, the thick slurry of sediments was so heavy that Domboski only sank further as he tried to pull himself out.
Fortunately for Domboski, his teenage cousin Eric Wolfgang was nearby, and pulled him out of the hole in less than a minute. Covered in hot mud, Domboski stared down at the location that could have been his early grave. Years later, that hellish imagery inspired video game developers and filmmakers who designed the iconic "Silent Hill" franchise. Yet at that moment, the main significance of Domboski's discovery was its long-term implications for his community. The year of Domboski's near-death, 1981, was the year when Centralia began turning into a ghost town.
The culprit? A coal seam fire.
As the name indicates, coal seam fires begin when a layer of coal underneath Earth's crust manages to ignite. This can happen for reasons ranging from spontaneous combustion to human irresponsibility. An example of the former smolders to this day in Germany; the so-called Brennender Berg ("Burning Mountain") fire began in the 17th century due to a combination of naturally-occurring oxygen and pressure underneath the Earth. For an instance of the latter, one need only turn to Zimbabwe, where the burgeoning coal mining industry has led to a series of coal seam fires, many of which leave innocent people dead or maimed. Because coal seam fires have a massive supply of fuel and an unlimited supply of oxygen, they can burn for centuries, like the Brennender Berg fire. Indeed, the Burning Mountain (or Mount Wingen) fire in Australia is believed to have been burning for 5,500 years.
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"It continues to burn because it's too large to extinguish or stop. There's plenty of coal left to burn."
By contrast, the Centralia coal seam fire has been around for a measly few decades — since 1962, in fact. And no one really knows for sure how it started, only how it was found.
"The fire was first discovered in an abandoned coal stripping pit just outside of town," explains Dr. Stephen R. Couch, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Science, Technology and Society at Pennsylvania State University. "The pit was used as a trash dump. One theory is that spontaneous combustion caught garbage on fire, which ignited an outcropping of coal. Another is that a controlled burn of the garbage ignited the coal. Others recall an earlier mine fire in the area and think the coal fire ignited the garbage. We'll never know for sure what started it."
Once found, though, a company was hired to dig out the fire, and for a decade-and-a-half everyone thought the problem was solved. In 1979, then-Mayor John Coddington was alarmed when he discovered the fuel in his underground gas tanks had reached 172 degrees Fahrenheit. No one did much about the problem, though, until Domboski's accident forced the matter to their attention.
"My children were uppermost in my mind when I voted to relocate."
"It continues to burn because it's too large to extinguish or stop," Couch told Salon, estimating that it could take up to 200 years before the fire goes out. "There's plenty of coal left to burn. Stopping air from getting to the fire is impossible; there are too many holes, many of them bootleg holes that are not on any map. Digging the fire out is prohibitively expensive, as is trenching it to stop its advance. The fire will eventually stop on its own because it will burn to rock barriers or to the water table."
To this day, authorities are unclear as to whether Centralia is safe to visit. Throughout the 1980s, as the debate over the safety of living in Centralia raged on, the town wound up being destroyed regardless of whether it was still safe to inhabit. In the end, it wasn't ecology that put the final nail in Centralia's coffin; it was the brutal reality of economics.
"Since the scientific evidence was ambiguous, people took sides and fought one another over what to do," Couch recalled. While some residents believed the fire was dangerous and insisted on government compensation to help them relocate, others held the position that the public was overreacting. They resented those who wanted to move because it would lower their property values, and it didn't take a sociologist to anticipate that the panic could destroy their community.
"The conflict became very rancorous, involving lost friendships, neighbors not talking to each other, and indeed fist fights, tire slashings, telephone threats, and a fire bombing," Couch told Salon. By 1983, an article in a local newspaper known as "The Morning Call" opened with the words "Centralia is dying." While some residents declared that they felt just fine — and one noted that the government's attempt to compensate him for moving came nowhere close to covering the cost of his home — there were other stories too. One 27-year-old woman, who had lived in Centralia her entire life, drew the line when all three of her children developed upper respiratory problems.
"My children were uppermost in my mind when I voted to relocate," Sheila Klementovich later told the newspaper. And it wasn't only native Centralians who were avoiding Centralia. Outsiders also "refused to go to Centralia because it was too dangerous. Little League baseball teams from surrounding communities stopped playing on Centralia's baseball field because of the perceived danger," Couch told Salon.