On a ghost town, a garbage dump, and Pennsylvania’s forever fire.
By Ryan Schurr
HOST: Beneath the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, an hour north of Harrisburg, a fire has been burning for sixty years. It began in 1962, in a landfill near the community of Centralia.
Dave Dekok: And they, every year, just before Memorial Day, they had this practice of setting the dump on fire.
HOST: That’s Dave Dekok, a former newspaper journalist who has written a few books about the fire.
DD: Because it was right by a cemetery. And a lot of people would be coming out to visit the graves of their ancestors, you know to put up a little American flags on the veterans’ graves, and you know and that sort of thing. And they wanted the dump to be as nice as a dump could be, you know. And the way they would clean it up was by setting it on fire, letting it burn for a while…and then they would wash it down with water from a tanker truck from the fire company, and then go away, and everything was fine.
HOST: But they had recently moved the landfill to a new location.
DD: The problem was…strip mines in that area…often cut through old deep mines, and this one was no exception. And the state dump inspector had told them they had to close up those openings. But they hadn’t done all of them, and there was one down in the bottom of the pit underneath the garbage that they had not gotten around to…And it was through that opening that the fire spread.
HOST: It got into a network of abandoned coal mines that stretched beneath the town. They sent a second fire truck out there, but it was really too late––Centralia had only begun to burn.
Source: Magnus Manske (CC BY-SA 3.0)
# MUSIC: THEME
Host: From Belt Magazine, this is Fire!––a podcast about industrial fires in American life. I’m Ryan Schnurr. If you go to Centralia these days, it doesn’t look much like a town. Almost nobody lives there anymore, and most of the buildings have been leveled. There’s a bit of infrastructure left––roads, telephone poles, stuff like that. You can still drive through it, but most people will tell you not to stray too far off-road. Grass and trees have taken over. Ventilation pipes spill upward from the Earth. And they say that sometimes, near the Odd Fellows Cemetery on the outskirts of town, you can still see smoke rising up from underground.
There are competing theories about how the fire actually started, but the one Dave Dekok just explained seems to hold up best. And even if you think that’s up for debate, it’s clear the Centralia mine fire is a product of the coal industry. And now it haunts the seams below the former town, where asphalt streets are lined with the ghosts of homes demolished long ago. The fire has been burning for more than sixty years, and by some estimates, it’s got another two hundred and fifty (or more) to go.
And so the question you might have––or at least, the question I have, in this era of climate crisis––is what happens in a place that’s perpetually on fire?
DD: During the summer of 1962, state and federal mining officials debated which of them, which agency would take charge of this mine fire.
HOST: It used to be that mining companies were responsible for cleaning up mine fires. But, Dekok says, they were struggling in the 60s, and so responsibility for the Centralia fire fell on the government, which had not allocated nearly enough resources. But eventually the state agreed to take over.
DD: And, you know, they gave the contract to a local company, and, and, you know, he started working on this. And then Labor Day weekend comes along, and work stops for the holiday. The fire didn’t stop burning, but they stopped digging.
HOST: When they came back after the long weekend…
DVD: …the fire had burned beyond the area where they had enough money to dig it out of the ground. And so they had to stop work and then appeal for funds from the state for a new project, and the same thing happened…and this would be the story of the Centralia mine fire all along. They would appropriate some money to deal with it, but not enough, and this just kept happening again and again and again.
HOST: A year later, somebody came up with an idea to draw the fire away from Centralia by opening a vent in the direction of some abandoned mineland. The government created a barrier of fly ash, which is a kind of coal residue. And, Dekok says, that actually worked for a while. Until it didn’t.
DD: Overall, the Centralia mine fire became a battle of man against the environment. You know, man had created the conditions for this fire to spread, fire that the town set itself accidentally became the mine fire, and then dealing with this horrendous underground monster that they had created.
Judy Polites: We lived in the very first house as you come into Centralia from Mount Carmel.
HOST: Judy Polites moved to Centralia in the 1960s.
JP: Well when we moved to Centralia it was 1968. And the, the beginnings of that concern about the fire were just erupting. Like, it wasn’t enough to keep you from buying there.
HOST: The family bought a big old house from the early twentieth century and began to remodel it, room by room. They had five kids who attended the local schools.
JP: Well like many small towns, it was basically a mining community…miners were recruited from European countries to come here and work.…The neighborhoods were settled in those ways… There were just a few stores, a little mom and pop store, the bank. A store that probably served the miners at one time that had jeans and boots and things like that, but not like a true department store. And there were the usual things that are in communities: the American Legion, which was popular. The fire company, you know, just, just a little tiny small town.
HOST: A few years after Judy Polites and her family moved to Centralia, the fly ash barrier began to fail. And the fire and gases snuck through into the tunnels underneath Centralia proper.
DD: I started working for the Shamokin News-Item in the fall of 1975. And I really––I heard nothing about the Centralia mine fire during, like, the first eighteen months that I was there. It was simply not talked about. It was in that period where people thought the mine, the flash barrier was working.
HOST: Dave Dekok recalls the moment he realized Centralia was going to be a big story.
DD: It wasn’t until November of 1976, when I filled in for another reporter who covered Centralia Borough Council. Centralia Borough Council had a reputation for having extremely long meetings, like three hours. And at the end of the meeting, they would have something called the citizens portion of the meeting…And so, after this long meeting, this guy named Tony Gaughan stands up and starts talking about this fire that was burning under the ground near his house. And he was saying that if nothing was done, the fire was going to spread underneath the entire town.
And I was all ears…I went back to the office, and the next day I talked to my editor Tom Brennan and got his permission to do a more in-depth story. I wrote my first of five hundred––I counted them once––stories about the mine fire over the next decade.
Sean Adams: Um well, Centralia in particular is in the anthracite mine field, which is in eastern Pennsylvania, very mountainous at the time that it was developed in the eighteen-teens, but really the 1820s––very remote.
HOST: I wanted to better understand what geographers call the “energy landscape” of this region, so I called Sean Adams. He’s a historian at the University of Florida who studies the history of coal.
SA: Coal is discovered there––actually, an interesting kind of a throwback to the Centralia fire., supposedly, the myth is that hunters left the campfire burning and then woke up to find out that the land was actually on fire.
HOST: There are two major kinds of coal––anthracite and bituminous. Anthracite is a lot less common. It’s harder, higher in carbon, and it burns hotter and cleaner.
SA: You know, this was, this was hard, hard coal mining which meant that what you did was you drilled a hole in it, you packed that hole with black powder––eventually they would use dynamite, but at the time, in the nineteenth century, it was black powder––light a fuse, you would say ‘Fire in the hole,’ everybody would kind of cower in, the explosion would go off, and then you’d shovel the coal and bring it to the surface.
HOST: And it wasn’t just big companies getting in on the action. Everyday people were doing their own kind of bootleg coal mining on a smaller scale, known as ‘wildcat’ mining.
SA: You know, you would have a coal seam that maybe a company would find unprofitable, but individuals would find, ‘Okay, over the weekend, I can dig some of this coal and sell it at market.’ …So you have to think about this whole region is inundated with these mine shafts that are often up penetrating each other.
HOST: So, essentially, you’ve got a whole landscape with these mine shaft tunnels sort of honeycombing beneath it, right? I’m imagining, like, an ant farm with tunnels cutting back and forth.
SA: Yeah, and it’s very––like I said, anthracite, it’s very hard to ignite…. The disadvantage of that, as Centralians found out, is that once it’s lit: really hot, really hard to put out. And probably the worst thing that can happen, and it did happen in Centralia, is that you get a seam that kind of catches on fire and smolders, and it will continue to smolder for a long, long time.
[TAPE] “HELL ON EARTH”: If you go to Centralia, Pennsylvania, you won’t see a raging fire. What you will see is this: smoke, steam, and toxic fumes.
HOST: There’s an old film you can watch on YouTube––shot on sixteen millimeter––called “Hell on Earth.” It was produced in the early eighties to draw attention to the fire.
[TAPE] HOE: What followed the fire and loss of income was a twenty-year nightmare that dramatically changed the complexion of Centralia.
HOST: It began with noxious gases, seeping into the basements of homes in Centralia. You’ve heard of the canary in the coal mine––referring to any early warning of danger. Well, in Centralia, people began to keep actual canaries in their homes.
[TAPE] HOE: A few years ago, you could buy a canary at Lou’s barber shop. A bird was a monitor. When it passed out, it meant dangerous gases had entered your home. The Canaries have been replaced [ringing of an alarm].
HOST: The state installed monitoring systems, with alarms that would sound when the concentration of gases reached thirty-five parts per million. Judy Polites remembers.
JP: The alarms went into the places where they most highly suspected that there were fumes in the homes. And, you know, at that point, I’m saying to the kids, ‘Honey, don’t go in that house to play or don’t, you know, play outside, but don’t––’ you know, because they would be in a confined space.
But then of course, the school and the church and the baseball fields and everything else where your kids spent a lot of time, where family spent time––it got to be more concerning. And the steam coming out of the ground.
[TAPE] HOE: The danger increases as the fire spreads. On Valentine’s Day of 1980, Claire Dombowski experienced a nightmare and a miracle. The ground beneath her son caved in. He escaped death by clinging to a root in the hole.
HOST: The kid’s name was Todd Dombrowski––he went looking for the sources of a plume and was sucked into a smoke-filled sinkhole that kept growing deeper and deeper. He was saved by his cousin, who was nearby, and who could barely make out Todd’s red hunting cap amid the haze.
[TAPE] HOE: Uh, let me begin by saying thank you everyone for coming here this afternoon.
HOST: Around the turn of the decade, concerned citizens began organizing at town meetings in Centralia.
[TAPE] HOE: I think your presence here expresses your concern about what has been and is happening in Centralia. And we really appreciate your turning out for this.
JP: When you see what our political environment is like today, try and put that down into something as small as Centralia, because there were the people who didn’t want to go, there were the people who needed to go and didn’t want to go, there were people who couldn’t wait to get out…
My husband was the president of council during a lot of that…I know we would get letters at the house of ways that we could kill this fire and, I mean, some of them were so bizarre. Now these were not official things, this was mail that came to the president of council, like that we could collect bull urine and get it put out with that [laughter]. Listen, I’m telling you the crazies come out. Sometimes reading the mail was the best laugh of the day.
HOST: They didn’t go with the bull urine. And eventually, pretty much everyone ended up having to move.
DD: When somebody agreed to relocate. And when they moved out, the state would move in, demolish the home, level off the site, smooth it over. And eventually the entire town or nearly the entire town disappeared.
HOST: Between 1985 and 1991, the state purchased more than five hundred homes and businesses.
DD: It’s kind of weird now. I mean, you know, you have all these, these power lines and sidewalks, but no homes…The areas that were once neatly tended lawns are now thickets of forest.
HOST: In 1992, the state used eminent domain to force the remaining residents out. At this point, there were only around forty or fifty people, and they took the state to court––they wanted to be able to stay on the property, knowing the risks. And they won. But over the years, as they have died off, the population has dwindled.
DD: There’s about five people left. They’re all mostly from the [illegible] family. They’re the diehards of the diehards. And, you know, people who for emotional, not always really rational reasons, decided they did not want to leave. And so they just chose not to.
HOST: I’m really interested in that component of this––that so many people didn’t want to leave even when they knew that it was burning underneath them and that there was toxic gas spilling into their homes. There was a sense that, well Centralia is important to me. I asked Judy Polites her feelings about this:
HOST: What’s it like to live so close now? And to know that that community is no longer there? I mean, do you ever go back?
JP: Well, you have to go through it to get to some other places. And it still makes me sad, you know, and sometimes when we’re going through, we try and figure out––because now it’s getting to be a lot of years and things you know, there’s just a few homes left. But so and so lived here, and then it was there. And then it was and it was [illegible]. And then it was [illegible] and the kids even still do it. Like, it makes me want to cry, yeah. That’s thirty-six years or so. It’s, it’s, it’s hurtful. Because for mine, you know, they were baptized there and received the sacraments there. Went to school there. You know, some of the nicest parts of our life were spent there.
HOST: Centralia is not the only mine fire burning in Pennsylvania. John Stefanko, Deputy Secretary of the Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, said when I called him last year that there were actually more than forty active abandoned mine fires in the state.
John Stefanko: We have what we call the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, which reclaims all historical, abandoned coal mines and addresses historic abandoned mined fires, subsidence and such, anything that occurred prior to 1977, which is when Pennsylvania achieved primacy and we put regulations in place.
HOST: There are a few main dangers with a mine fire. One of the big ones––and this was evident in Centralia––is the potential for toxic gases. So one of the things people did early on was to drill boreholes to vent the gas out of the fire cavity and into the atmosphere.
JS: And actually, if you go out there, you will actually still see some of those vent boreholes still do exist out there. There are other boreholes out there that we use to actually monitor the extent of the fire as well.
HOST: Other common issues include flooding––if the mine shaft hits an aquifer or other groundwater source, discharging toxins into drinking water––and something called subsidence, which is when the ground collapses. Stefanko says this is the biggest issue with abandoned mines.
JS: In this particular case, obviously, with the coal cropping out the way it did––if it’s burning, once that pillar collapses, then what happens is you get the subsidence where it drops, and then you’re gonna see these deep open crevices out there, which obviously is a danger for anybody falling into them.
HOST: That’s what happened with Todd Dombrowski, the kid who fell into the sinkhole back in 1981.
JS: The true and only way to ever fully extinguish a fire is to totally excavate it, allow the burning materials to cool, and then you can replace it back into the trench that you’ve dug. We’ve done a number of what we call ‘control projects’ over the years on mine fires, where we would put in a cut off trench that, essentially, all it does is prevents the fire from spreading beyond a certain point and, essentially, would let it burn itself out.
HOST: That’s basically what’s happening in Centralia––partly because of its scale, and partly because nobody really lives there now. Stefanko says they have a map of likely coal seams in that area, and they’re pretty confident at this point that, because of water and subsidence blockages, the fire is not going to spread under neighboring towns.
JS: The original estimate was that it was capable of burning about thirty-seven hundred acres out there. …But other things have happened around it that would potentially reduce the burn area. There is an active surface coal mine in the area that they went in and are, they were taking coal out. So if they take that out, that obviously would reduce the potential it could potentially move in that direction.
HOST: They’re doing that right now?
JS: Yes, there was––I can’t tell you if it’s still active right now. The last I had heard it was still an active permit out there.
HOST: What’s the extent of the fire at this point? I mean, is it still burning under the central part of Centralia? Or is it mostly around the edges? I mean how is it kinda moving?
JS: We don’t really know that. Underground, there’s so many different mining tunnels, if something is changed, or if the wind direction under the mine tunnel has changed, it may blow hot air in one direction versus the other. It may move the fire in one direction, it may stop it in one direction. So at any given time, you’re not really sure where it is.
And we still have monitoring wells out there that we just, you know, we go up and check on them every once in a while because we essentially know it’s not going to go anywhere, the fire itself.…so we’re just essentially letting it burn itself out.
HOST: Over the years, Centralia has appeared here and there in popular culture, usually representing some sort of horrific unreality. For example, the horror game and film franchise Silent Hill based its fictional town on Centralia.
In the early two-thousands, a Pittsburgh-based theatre troupe called Squonk Opera staged a remake of Dante’s Inferno, set in Centralia. It was pretty trippy, sort of a modern rock opera with giant projection puppets and complicated light cues. There are still a few videos floating around the internet, like this one of their song “How Many Times”:
MUSIC: Squonk Opera, “How Many Times” (0:00-0:14)
HOST: You might remember that in the Inferno, Dante gets lost in the woods and ends up forced beneath the earth, where he travels through the nine circles of hell. And hell, as Dante encountered it, was a place where your sins dictated your punishment. I’m not one for punitive theology, but it’s hard not to see the connection between the decision to build our civilization on coal and fossil fuels, and the contemporary landscape of Centralia.
I thought a lot about Centralia in the early years of the Biden administration, when the U.S. Senate was haggling over a climate bill and a coal baron stood in the way. The landscape of eastern Pennsylvania has been shaped irrevocably by the activities of the coal industry. It became a fundamentally different place––a more volatile and dangerous place––than in the not-so-distant past. If Centralia is a kind of hell on earth, it’s one that some people and corporations had a hand in making.
SA: And I think that’s part of the symbolism of the Centralia fire.
HOST: Sean Adams, the coal historian.
SA: That industry went and made a lot of money, [and] a lot of that money left the region. And then what it left was this kind of environmental disaster, and a landscape that was susceptible to environmental disasters like the Centralia fire, like floods, like cave-ins, like collapses, like people falling down mineshafts––all those sorts of things.
HOST: The community of Centralia––people like Judy Polites––were proverbial canaries in a literal coal mine. Stefanko told me that, to his knowledge, Centralia is the only town to ever be relocated because of a mine fire. But it’s not the only place whose future is shaped by the coal industry. A 2019 report from the International Panel on Climate Change said that “Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step” in limiting the effects of climate change.
But the Centralia mine fire reveals the extent to which the coal industry is interwoven into the economic, environmental, and cultural fabric of this country. We build meaning from shared experiences, and so, even when we have this thing that is literally undermining our homes and communities, that is making it too hot to live, there’s still a part of us that mourns its absence. All of which complicates the project of extricating it from our lives and politics.
DD: What I can’t forget is that how easy it would have been to put this fire out. …I mean, the lesson of Centralia, which actually was learned, was that when a mine fire starts, you got to hit it hard, and keep hitting it until it’s gone…For any number of reasons it fell between the cracks, and just got bigger and bigger and bigger until it became impossible to deal with.
# MUSIC: Squonk Opera’s Inferno, “How Many Times”
CREDITS: This episode was written and produced by me, Ryan Schnurr, production assistance from Cassidy Duncan. Theme music by Michael Bozzo. Additional music by Jahzzar. Archival recordings courtesy of Squonk Opera and via YouTube user @19kings14. Special thanks to everyone who spoke with me for the project, and to Anna Schnurr, Ray Fouché, Shannon McMullen, Rachel Havrelock, Sharra Vostral, and Ed Simon.
Fire! is a production of Belt Magazine and Fortlander Media. Support for this project came from Belt readers and members, the Purdue University Department of American Studies, Jim Babcock, and the Albert LePage Center for History in the Public Interest. You can find links to sources and further reading, along with more episodes, at beltmag.com/fire.
Next time, we follow the trail of industrial fires west to twenty-first-century California. See you then.
Selected sources and further reading:
Documentary: Centralia – Hell on Earth
Renée Jacobs, Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania
Joan Quigley, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy
Penn State University, Pennsylvania Mine Map Atlas
Film: Christopher Ganz, Silent Hill
Squonk Opera, “How Many Times”
Dante Aligheri, The Inferno
Ryan Schnurr is the author of In the Watershed and writer for hire covering climate, culture, infrastructure, and more. He used to edit Belt Magazine (and still writes there sometimes). He is also the creator of the forthcoming podcast series Fire!, on industrial fires and climate crisis in American cities. Ryan received his PhD and MA from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, respectively, and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Trine University.