This "Helltown" In Pennsylvania Has Been On Fire For 55 Straight Years And Nobody Can Put It Out

Centralia, Pennsylvania has become a vision of hell. Most of the town's buildings are gone, and hot gases spout from the hillsides. But what happened to turn the once-charming small town into a nightmare landscape?

Centralia has been burning for over 55 years. A vibrant mining town, Centralia depended for decades on its rich deposits of anthracite coal. But one day, a fire began in an abandoned mineshaft, and nobody has been able to put it out. The fire spread through the coal veins, heating the earth below the buildings and endangering residents. Houses burned down, people began passing out from carbon monoxide poisoning, and sinkholes destroyed roads. The town of Centralia slowly became a ghost town, and around a dozen people stubbornly refuse to leave to this day.

  • In 1962, The Mine Below Centralia Caught Fire
    Photo: jesiehart / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    In 1962, The Mine Below Centralia Caught Fire

    The coal mines in and around Centralia began to shut down after the war. However, the town's long struggle with coal was just beginning. While not everyone agrees how the fire started, the most common story is that it began when a landfill near the mouth of one of the mines was set ablaze by the volunteer fire department. Another theory suggests that a coal fire from 1932 had never been fully extinguished and slowly spread across the abandoned mine.

  • The Hillsides Are Covered In Vents That Spew Toxic Gases

    With the fire burning below ground, all of the smoke and gas it produces needs somewhere to go. If you were to walk through Centralia, you'd see hillsides dotted with vents. Some are man-made pipes which allow gas to escape, while others are natural holes that have formed in the Earth. Either way, going near them means putting yourself at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Some produce the gas at life-threatening levels.

  • Daily Concerns For Residents Include Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
    Photo: Mredden / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Daily Concerns For Residents Include Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

    The heat and gases from the fire underground pose a number of risks to the residents of Centralia. The extent of the danger wasn't fully realized until the late 1970s, when strange and alarming incidents began to occur. One of the most frightening was the near-death of Todd Domboski—the 12-year-old was walking in his backyard when a sinkhole opened up and nearly swallowed him. He was able to cling to roots along the side of the pit before he was pulled to safety. Otherwise, he would have fallen into a 150-foot hole of carbon monoxide. Other common concerns include structure fires and the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning in homes and businesses.

  • The Fire Is Going To Have To Burn Itself Out Completely
    Photo: Mredden / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Fire Is Going To Have To Burn Itself Out Completely

    The burn has been described as an "epic, meatless barbecue." Under normal circumstances, if a fire occurs the fire department simply puts it out. But with this fire, there is physically no way to extinguish it. It's destined to smolder until it completely burns itself out, which some predict could take as long as 250 years.

  • There Are Only Ten Residents Left In The Town

    Of the 2,700 residents of Centralia, only ten remain living there. Those tough ten have had to fight hard against state officials and the EPA to keep their residences—they finally won a 20-year legal battle to stay in 2013. The long-time residents were unwilling to leave their homes and land, even as nearby houses burst into flame and toxic gas filled most of the town. The government compensated all of the other residents who abandoned their houses, but a stubborn few are now free to live out the remainder of their lives knowing that, while they're in imminent danger of poisoning and structure fires, the state of Pennsylvania will no longer try to repossess their property.

  • There Was Hope That "Helltown" Would Become A Tourist Attraction, But Visitors Are Strongly Discouraged
    Photo: Peter & Laila / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    There Was Hope That "Helltown" Would Become A Tourist Attraction, But Visitors Are Strongly Discouraged

    Experts adamantly warn against visiting Centralia. Unfortunately, tourists who read about the town online are often drawn to the site and attempt to take souvenirs home with them, including the signs warning visitors of danger.

    Roadside America wrote, "We imagined a future tourism windfall for Centralia itself, reborn as 'Helltown USA,' with bus tours guided by residents in red devil tights and horns." Not surprisingly, this vision hasn't been realized because of deterrents such as the deadly carbon monoxide levels and raging underground fire which could split the Earth and consume anyone at any moment.