Fire in the Hole

Fire in the Hole

 19 October 2007

published by

USA — From the back kitchen window of his little house on a ridge ineast-central Pennsylvania, John Lokitis looks out on a most unusual prospect.Just uphill, at the edge of St.IgnatiusCemetery, the earth is ablaze. Vegetationhas been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out ofhundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted.Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps ventingsmoke through hollow centers. Sometimes fumes seep across the cemetery fence tothe grave of Lokitis’ grandfather, George Lokitis.

This hellish landscape constitutes about all that remains of theonce-thriving town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Forty-three years ago, a vasthoneycomb of coal mines at the edge of the town caught fire. An undergroundinferno has been spreading ever since, burning at depths of up to 300 feet,baking surface layers, venting poisonous gases and opening holes large enough toswallow people or cars. The conflagration may burn for another 250 years, alongan eight-mile stretch encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of the coalthat fuels it.

Remarkably enough, nobody’s doing a thing about it. The federal and stategovernments gave up trying to extinguish the fire in the 1980s. “Pennsylvaniadidn’t have enough money in the bank to do the job,” says Steve Jones, ageologist with the state’s Office of Surface Mining. “If you aren’t goingto put it out, what can you do? Move the people.”Nearly all 1,100 residentsleft after they were offered federally funded compensation for their properties.Their abandoned houses were leveled. Today Centralia exists only as an eeriegrid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of apicket fence here, a chair spindle there—plus Lokitis and 11 others whorefused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures. Lokitis, 35,lives alone in the house he inherited from “Pop”—his grandfather, a coalminer, as was Pop’s father before him. For fans of the macabre, lured by asign warning of DANGER from asphyxiation or being swallowed into the ground,Centralia has become a tourist destination. For Lokitis, it is home.

Across the globe, thousands of coal fires are burning. Nearly impossible toreach and extinguish once they get started, the underground blazes threatentowns and roads, poison the air and soil and, some say, worsen global warming.The menace is growing: mines open coal beds to oxygen; human-induced fires orspontaneous combustion provides the spark. The United States, with the world’slargest coal reserves, harbors hundreds of blazes from Alaska to Alabama.Pennsylvania, the worst-afflicted state, has at least 38—an insignificantnumber compared with China (see sidebar, “Flaming Dragon,” p. 58) and India,where poverty, old unregulated mining practices and runaway development havecreated waves of Centralias. “It’s a worldwide catastrophe,” saysgeologist Anupma Prakash of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Some of the underground fires are natural occurrences. When coal, exposed ator near the surface by erosion, combines with oxygen, a chemical reactionproduces heat. That process can build for years; low-grade, soft coals—crumblyand low in carbon—can spontaneously combust, at temperatures as low as 104degrees Fahrenheit. Lightning or a brush fire can also ignite soft coal. Thefires burn downward, acquiring air through fissures in rock and microscopicspaces between grains of dirt. An underground fire may smolder for years, oreven decades, without showing signs on the surface. Eventually, however, in aprocess called subsidence, burning subterranean coal turns to ash, creating hugeunderground voids and causing overlying ground to crack and collapse—thusallowing more air in, which fans more fire. Much of the landscape of theAmerican West— its mesas and escarpments—is the result of vast, ancient coalfires. Those conflagrations formed “clinker”—a hard mass of fused stonymatter. Surfaces formed in this way resist erosion far better than adjacentunfired ones, leaving clinker outcrops. Many ancient fires like those still burn,from the Canadian Arctic to southeast Australia. Scientists estimate thatAustralia’s BurningMountain, the oldest known coal fire, has burned for 6,000years. In the 19th century, explorers mistook the smoking summit for a volcano.

Natural though the fires may be, humans intensify the scale. China, forexample, supplies 75 percent of its energy with coal as it hurtles towardindustrialization. Due to mining of its vast coal fields, fires are spreading.Estimates vary, but some scientists believe that anywhere from 20 million to 200million tons burn there each year, producing as much carbon dioxide as about 1percent of the total carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned on earth. Anotherhuman intensifier: rural Chinese people tend to hand-dig household coal fromhundreds of thousands of surface locations, then abandon them when the cavitiesget too deep. The practice leaves the earth punctured by countless small pits;inside, loose coal chunks and powder are exposed to air, making them highlycombustible.

Beginning in 1993, Chinese scientists joined with Dutch and, later, Germanresearchers to map China’s coal fires from satellites and aircraft, leading tothe discovery of many new fires. “We know there are thousands, but it is toohard to count,” says Stefan Voigt, a geographer at the GermanAerospaceCenternear Munich. Extinguishing the fires would require heavy equipment to dig themout and smother them with soil—but China is still largely dependent on picksand shovels. “The Chinese recognize the problem,” says Voigt, “butsometimes they’ll say: ‘We don’t need more science. We need more bulldozers.’”

China has the most coal fires, but India, where largescale mining began morethan a century ago, accounts for the world’s greatest concentration of them.Rising surface temperatures, and toxic byproducts in groundwater and soil, haveturned the densely populated Raniganj, Singareni and Jharia coal fields intovast wastelands. Subsidence has forced relocations of villages and roads—thenre-relocations, as fire fronts advance. Rail lines give way; buildings disappear.In 1995, a Jharia riverbank was undermined by fire and crumbled; water rushedinto underground mines, killing 78. Perhaps the most terrifying spectacle is theunquenched fire itself: many blazes smoldered quietly in old underground tunnelsuntil recently, when modern strip pits exposed them to air. The revitalizedflames erupted, engulfing the region in a haze of soot, carbon monoxide andcompounds of sulfur and nitrogen. Burning coal also releases arsenic, fluorineand selenium. (Studies in China have suggested that the millions of people whouse coal for cooking are being slowly poisoned by such elements.) Even so,workers continue to labor in this highly toxic environment.

And despite a 1990s World Bank study that outlined measures to combat thefires, little has been done to address the problem in either China or India.Prakash and other experts blame bureaucracy, corruption and the sheeroverwhelming scale of the problem. “It’s just crazy,” she says.

Mining is not the only human intensifier of the fires. In Indonesia, hugetracts of land once covered by rain forest— and underlain by near-surface coal—isfast being logged, then cleared for agriculture. The preferred method: fire. Thepractice has ignited perhaps 3,000 coal fires since 1982, destroying houses,schools and mosques. Heavy smoke carpets much of Southeast Asia, blocking outsunlight and causing crop failures as well as reducing visibility and, in atleast one case, triggering an oil-tanker collision. The smoke is also implicatedin an epidemic of asthma. On a smaller scale, a related phenomenon has occurredin the United States; near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for example, an old coalmine has burned for the past 100 years. In the summer of 2002, the blaze igniteda forest fire that consumed 12,000 acres and 43 buildings. Putting it out cost$6.5 million. And the mine still burns.

Generations of engineers and geologists have puzzled over how to fight thesebehemoths. “We’ve learned the hard way— total excavation is usually theonly thing,” says Alfred Whitehouse, a geologist with the U.S. Office ofSurface Mining (OSM). Last year, when range fires near Gillette, Wyoming, setoff 60 blazes in coal outcrops, the federal Bureau of Land Management sent ahelicopter to map hot spots, then used heavy equipment to dig out the burningfires. It worked. “Those fires are nasty little rascals. You can’t let ’emgo,” says Bud Peyrot, a rancher who has bulldozed a number of hot spots on hisplace.

But extinguishing relatively small underground fires with bulldozers andbackhoes is one thing. Dealing with firebreathing monsters the size of the onein Centralia poses an altogether different magnitude of challenge. EasternPennsylvania sits on the world’s greatest deposits of anthracite—shiny, hard,clean-burning, high-BTU coal in deep beds, squeezed and twisted by the formationof ridges like the one that rises behind John Lokitis’ house. In the 19th andearly 20th centuries, miners reached the anthracite deposits through mazes oftunnels, shafts and gangways. If a fire got started in them, miners were usuallyable to extinguish it before it spread. Then oil and gas replaced anthracite aspremier home heating fuels. By the 1950s, most Pennsylvania anthracite mines hadbeen abandoned. Entrances caved in; tunnels began to fill with rubble. Later,strip miners with modern equipment came at the coal from the surface, but theycould never reach it all. The result was a landscape of stony debris on top ofleftover underground coal laced by interconnected airways—a perfect settingfor a coal fire.

The Centralia fire probably got going in May 1962, when local sanitationworkers began burning trash at a site over an old mine entrance just outsidetown, igniting the underlying coal. Over some 20 years, firefighters tried eighttimes to put it out. First they dug trenches, but the fire outpaced them. Thenthey attempted “flushing”—a process that involves augering holes into orahead of a fire, and pouring down wet sand, gravel, slurries of cement and flyash to cut off oxygen. (Flushing nearly always fails because of the difficultyof filling every pore space. In addition, because coal fires can exceed 1,000degrees F, most fill material burns away, leaving more gaps. For both of thesereasons, the flushing attempt did not succeed.) Next, state and federalgeologists drilled hundreds of exploratory boreholes to define the fire, thendug a huge trench across its supposed path. But the fire had already spreadbeyond the trench. Some critics believe the digging helped ventilate the fire.

Flooding the area with water was rejected: it is nearly impossible toinundate a large underground area, especially one as complex and well drained asCentralia. In any case, water would have had to be pumped in for years todissipate the fire’s heat. Afinal solution, to dig a pit three-quarters of amile long and deep as a 45-story building, would have cost $660 million, morethan the value of property in town. It, too, was rejected.

Within a few months, the Centralia fire, which began on the town’soutskirts, had spread to its southern edge. At first, this development seemedmore curious than calamitous. Kathy Gadinski, then 25, recalls harvestingtomatoes at Christmas from her naturally heated garden. Some folks no longer hadto shovel snow. Then things took an ominous turn: residents began passing out intheir houses—from carbon monoxide leaking in through their basements. Next,the underground gas tanks at Coddington’s Esso gas station, near St. IgnatiusChurch, started heating up. Route 61, the main road into town, dropped eightfeet, and steam spurted out of cracks in the pavement. Then, in 1981,12-year-old Todd Domboski was crossing through a resident’s backyard when ahole opened: he slid out of sight into a dense cloud of gases. The boy savedhimself by clinging to a tree root until a cousin pulled him out. After that,just about everyone in Centralia accepted the most radical solution of all: letthe mine burn. Most residents took the federal buyout and moved to neighboringtowns; more than 600 buildings were demolished. “Putting it out is theimpossible dream,” says Jones.

In 1992, the town’s remaining buildings were condemned; the state tooktitle to Centralia. Lokitis and other die-hards became squatters, butauthorities have not evicted anyone. Most of those who have chosen to remain areelderly, and “that would be very bad publicity,” says Lamar Mervine,Centralia’s flinty, 89-year-old mayor. “They don’t want another Waco here.”(That, he adds, was a joke.) It’s just that he and his wife, Lanna, also 89,like Centralia, even without many neighbors. With much of the demolition zonegrassy and still visibly unaffected, they doubt the fire will reach their15-foot-wide house, now splendidly isolated at 411 South Troutwine Street.

But Jones says everyone should have moved out years ago. Those who stay, hewarns, could die any time from poison gases, whether there’s a fire undertheir property or not. On a recent tour of Centralia, Jones told me that thefire has spread to some 400 acres, growing like an amoeba, about 75 feet a year,along four separate arms. The blaze is most evident along theSt.IgnatiusCemetery. The church was pulled down in 1997, but former residentsstill inter loved ones in the 138-year-old graveyard. (The local joke is thatyou can get buried and cremated at the same time, no extra charge.) “Actually,”says Jones, “I don’t think the cemetery itself is on fire. Except maybe thatone little corner there.”

He points to empty plots where the grass is brown. Above steaming sinkholeslie heaps of hot, recently extruded clinker. Jones’ colleague, geologistTimothy Altares, sloshes water onto it: the liquid vaporizes. Then Jones spots alone metal post—the remnant of a DANGER sign he once posted there. “Peoplekeep stealing souvenirs,” he growls. Tourists, he says, print directions fromInternet sites and wander around snapping photographs. “This is a bad place.One day someone’s going to disappear down a sinkhole.”

Jones cannot say exactly where the fire is now—its perimeter is beyond theboreholes dug to define it. He believes it has crossed Big Mine Run Road, ashort drive outside town, and is heading east. (A roadside sandstone cliffglowed cherry red for a while but now merely wisps steam.) Route 61, on thesouthwest limb of the fire, remains buckled and steaming; the state has createda detour through neighboring Byrnesville, also virtually abandoned, where justabout the only landmark left is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, still maintained bythe Reilley family, who no longer live here.

Some residents of nearby towns, such as Mount Carmel (pop. 6,389), fear thefire will reach them, but experts believe it will run out of fuel or hitgroundwater before it does. Afew miles southwest of Centralia, two separatefires burn deep under mine waste near the village of Locust Gap. So far, theblazes seem confined to about a dozen acres, and it is hard to find surfaceevidence of them. Gary Greenfield, a geologist who works with Jones, says hedoesn’t think either of them will reach any houses, but he admits thatpredicting underground fire paths is like predicting the weather. “I don’tthink Locust Gap will become another Centralia,” he says. “At least notright away.” To the east, a fire has burned for at least 25 years nearShenandoah, opening fissures and emitting fumes, but so far causing no damage inthe town itself.

Not all of the fires are left to burn; when a blaze threatens buildings orroads, OSM tries to contain it. And often when a new fire is discovered,firefighters may succeed in putting it out. Driving north on Interstate 81 fromWilkes- Barre in his pickup truck, OSM mining engineer David Philbin pointed outgrassy spots where the agency replanted vegetation after a fire had beensuccessfully extinguished. On the outskirts of Carbondale, he showed me hisgreatest triumph: the former Powderly Mine, where a fire of unknown origin brokeout in 1995. The agency spent $5.5 million and seven years blasting and movingrock to carve a C-shaped trench 2,150 feet long, 70 feet wide and 150 feet deep.Philbin thinks the fire may burn another 20 years behind the trench but shouldeventually go out. “My finest moment,” he grins. “I’m the architect ofthis hole.”

Digging it was dangerous. Frontloader drivers carried emergency oxygen masksas they ripped smoking coal from the fire edge. The vertical walls of the trenchcould drop tenton boulders. Even now, as heat bakes and cracks the “hot”side of the trench, giant shards regularly split off. Philbin led the way downthrough a gap in the fence on the hot side, past steaming fissures and hot rockfaces. At the base of the trench wall—where three of Philbin’s colleaguesrefused to accompany us—lay hundreds of tons of fresh rockfall. “Well, tooutwit a fire, someone’s gotta stick his nose in,” he said, clambering overdebris. In the trench walls were intact coal seams and old tunnel timbers thathad not burned. “I like this,” Philbin said. “There’s adventure here.Some Sherlock Holmes. We think it’s contained. But of course a lot of peoplehave been fooled by these things. Personally, I’d like to dig the whole thingout.”

Philbin will likely never get the chance. Funds are limited, and to a certaindegree, coal field residents who are in no immediate danger accept fires as partof the backdrop, like subway noise in New York City or drizzle in Seattle. Onthe slope behind Philbin’s Wilkes-Barre office, another fire, the forgottencousin of Centralia, has been smoldering in Laurel Run since 1915. Every attemptto put it out has failed. When gases erupted under one neighborhood in the1960s, nearly 200 buildings had to be demolished, including 178 houses. Todaythat section of Laurel Run is a wasteland, frequented by illegal garbage dumpersand teens on all-terrain vehicles. But many people still live in adjacentneighborhoods. The access road to a nearby mobile-home park occasionally slumps,necessitating repairs. “I know if you’re from somewhere else, it seemsstrange, but to me it’s nothing unusual,” says resident Gene Driscoll, 49, aconstruction worker who lives at the park. “I’ve seen fires all my life. Noone really worries about it.”

But it’s a different story in Centralia, where just about every year thelittle band of holdouts is reduced by death or departure. Lokitis, a civilianaccountant for the state police, has been the only resident on WestPark sincehis neighbors, Bernie and Helen Darrah, died in 1996. The Darrahs’ house stillstands, but the rest of the street is lined with lots vacant except for grass, apatch of backyard forsythia and the town’s small monument to its war veterans.Still, Lokitis points out that the fire has never actually killed anyone. Infact, he says, people here live to ripe old ages—Pop, for example, died at 84in 2002. Lokitis says he just ignores the occasional whiff of sulfur that comeshis way. The fire has not reached his house, because, he insists, it’sprotected by groundwater and rock—and Pop assured him it never would. Pop knewthe underground around here like the back of his hand, Lokitis adds.

Centralia continues to hold municipal elections—8 of the town’s 12residents are officeholders. A $4,000 state budget covers maintenance costs,including the clearing of snow. Lokitis mows what used to be neighbors’ yards“to keep things looking neat.” Near an empty intersection of four-way stopsigns that once marked the center of town, a gleaming volunteer fire truckstands ready to roll. “Of course, we don’t have any fires to put out,”says Mayor Mervine. When the U.S. Postal Service finally revoked Centralia’sZIP code three years ago, Lokitis mounted a fruitless campaign to restore it,then stenciled the extinct code, 17927, on green park benches. And when theUnited States invaded Iraq in 2003, someone tied yellow ribbons on four nearbytelephone poles. At Christmas, a few former residents faithfully return to setup a manger scene. Lokitis claims many will turn up in 2016 to open a timecapsule buried in 1966 next to the veterans’ memorial.

In addition to the tourists, scientists come to Centralia as well, to studyvolcano-like minerals forming around cracks in the soil and to probe for unusualheat-loving bacteria. TV and newspaper reporters show up, seeking offbeatfeatures. Recently, a delegation of Russian scholars studying industrialdisasters came calling. “Sometimes you feel like an exhibit,” says Lokitis.

Mayor Mervine was pictured in Esquire not long ago, over a captionreading: “I ain’t leaving.” Wild turkeys, hummingbirds, deer and rabbitshave replaced crammed-in row houses. Recently, a black bear ambled down SouthTroutwine. Since no one owns property, no one pays property taxes, and theparking situation could hardly be improved. City councilman John Comarnisky istalking half-seriously about buying a few bison, putting them out to pasture,and promoting Centralia as the Yellowstone of the East. To hear some peopletalk, the place is coming back.

In his heart, Lokitis may know better. When Pop was buried next to Lokitis’grandmother at St. Ignatius last year, the grandson selected a headstone ofpolished, jet-black granite—a stone resembling top-grade anthracite. On themonument, a mason etched portraits of the couple, as well as images of St.Ignatius Church, the entry to the R&L Coal tunnel, and the house whereLokitis lives. “I wanted a permanent memorial of this place,” he said. Steamrises about 100 feet from his home and seeps even closer from the grave just upthe hill. But for now, the grass is still green.

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