The Earth is on fire.
Not, completely, of course.
However, if you walked into your kitchen one day and noticed the entire thing was up in flames, you might tell people later that your house was on fire.
Now, imagine that fire continually burned, and did so for decades with ceasing.
That’s the Centralia mine fire.
It’s been burning since 1962.
Let me say that again.
The Centralia mine fire has been burning since 1962.
Of course, that begs the question “how?” but we should really start with the “what?”
Centralia was a town in Pennsylvania. Today, Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal-producing state in the U.S. by volume.1
In 1962, Centralia had a problem. It had a small landfill, and in order to keep using it indefinitely, they had to figure out a way to empty it. The answer was: set it on fire. They did so in the days leading up to Memorial Day every year.
This year, however, the landfill had been moved to a new location. It was a pit 300 feet wide and 75 feet long. It was also an abandoned coal strip-mine. In theory, it was supposed to have been fire-proofed, but the city fell behind on the project and never finished it.
The volunteer firefighters set the dump on fire, and when it had burned down, they put it out. A few days later, more fires were spotted. The fire was again put out.
A few weeks later, there would be another fire. It would be put out. The pattern continued. The locals realized there was a fire burning underground. There was a pervasive smell of burning trash and coal.
But, it was one of those problems that fully fit the phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” As long as the fire was underground, life on the surface remained normal.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the locals realized they had a real problem on their hands.
Then gas station owner, and coincidentally, mayor, John Coddington, discovered that gas in his underground tanks was extremely warm.
172 degrees Fahrenheit warm.
That was the first warning that something was very, very wrong.
The second major sign came in 1981.
A 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski was in his backyard when the ground suddenly collapsed beneath him. Somehow, he managed to grab on to some roots and held on until his older cousin was able to pull him out of the hole. The hole was later measured to be 150 feet deep and contained lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
These events polarized the town’s residents into multiple factions. Some insisted that there was no real threat to the town, while others felt that danger was imminent.
The federal government and the government of Pennsylvania both tried to stop what was now known as the Centralia Mine Fire. Efforts revolving around using clay on the surface to deprive the blaze of oxygen failed, as did attempts to put the fire out by pumping ash, water, and rocks into the ground. These efforts were expensive, and since they were unsuccessful, the government moved onto a new plan.
In 1983, the federal government allocated $42 million to compensate homeowners for the value of their homes and began forcing them to move out of the area. The risk of being swallowed up by a sinkhole or inhaling poisonous gasses was simply too great.
In 1980, the population of the town was about 1000. By 1990, that number had dwindled to 63. In 1992, eminent domain was declared, and all of the buildings in the area were condemned. In 2002, the town’s zip code was revoked by the postal service, which delivers in rain, sleet, snow, and hail, but draws the line at mine fires.
However, some residents fought the eminent domain order, and as recently as 2013, 13 of them remained in the town. The remaining residents won a lawsuit, and the right to stay in their homes for the remainder of their lives, but they cannot sell the houses and are not allowed to pass them down to their children.
When they die, the homes will be destroyed.
So, how is this possible?
How can a fire burn for decades?
Well, there’s a lot of coal underground.
You’d think that maybe it would burn itself out. After all, there’s not much oxygen underground, and oxygen is required for combustion.
Well, coal usually contains at least some oxygen. Some varieties have much more, up to 10% of the total mass. This is part of the reason that coal can spontaneously combust.
Furthermore, when coal burns up it turns to ash.
The ash cannot support the weight of the ground above it, so it cracks and subsides, which allows more oxygen to come in contact with the coal.
In fact, the Centralia Mine fire is a relatively short-lived fire.
A fire near New Castle, Colorado has been burning since the late 1800s.
And, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, “[s]cientists estimate that Australia’s Burning Mountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000 years. In the 19th century, explorers mistook the smoking summit for a volcano.”
And, while there are some long-running mine fires in the U.S., other parts of the world have it much worse.
“Beginning in 1993, Chinese scientists joined with Dutch and, later, German researchers to map China’s coal fires from satellites and aircraft, leading to the discovery of many new fires. ‘We know there are thousands, but it is too hard to count,’ says Stefan Voigt, a geographer.
“China has the most coal fires, but India, where large-scale mining began more than a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them. Rising surface temperatures and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil have turned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni and Jharia coalfields into vast wastelands.”
Bureaucracy and corruption in both countries have greatly hampered efforts to combat mine fires.
On the other hand, America apparently can’t put out its mine fires either.
Some countries just want to watch the coal burn.2
- Somehow Texas is 7th, despite the fact I’ve never heard of coal being mined here. It’s probably outshined by natural gas and oil.
- Consulted sources: