Backstory: Home is where the fire is
The residents of Centralia, Pa., stay because it's home – underground inferno or not.
I've never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that's been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist?
An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years.
I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?
I arrived on a beautiful spring morning, joining a group of Philadelphia photobloggers on their monthly outing. It was a beautiful spring morning. Quaking aspens shimmered, emerald leaves glinting like jade. The few houses were neat and tidy, with tulips nestled among purple salvia. In the distance, American flags flapped lazily along a deserted street. If there was a traffic light, I didn't see it.
What's odd about Centralia is that ... it's not really odd. There are puffs of smoke, blackened earth, dead trees, abandoned buildings, and cracked highways. But there's life here, too.
At the town's time capsule – buried beneath a granite slab inscribed "to be opened in 2016" – I wondered who would open it. A cool breeze wafted through the trees. The soles of my shoes weren't even thinking of melting. As I chatted with the other photographers who, like me, were hoping to find something quirky and offbeat, we all agreed – it might be dubbed "Helltown," but even Photoshop couldn't make this place look spooky.
I spied a quintessential Greek Orthodox church nestled among the hills, its blue onion dome and gold three-barred cross gleaming. So much for Godforsaken.
I snapped a few pictures and almost abandoned the story, but for my smoldering curiosity: What draws people to a place and keeps them there long after it doesn't make sense anymore? What makes a house a home? In my search for drama, I was about to miss the real story – the whisper of everyday life.
Lamar Mervine, 90, accepted his weekly ration of Meals-on-Wheels and shut the screen door with a squeak-bang. As mayor of Centralia, he always has people showing up on his doorstep. Some are thrill-seeking tourists who've heard ghost stories – no doubt fueled by the recent horror movie "Silent Hill," inspired by the town. Others are journalists from as far away as Europe and Asia, looking for a unique story.
All want to know the same thing: What's it like to live in a town that's been on fire for 44 years?
For Mr. Mervine, a retired operating engineer, it's just home: The house where he grew up and then settled with his young bride, Lana. Now, the church they met in is gone, and Lana is in a nursing home. Every day, he drives four miles to see her, past empty lots where neighbors once lived. As long as he's able, he'll stay here – for her.
"I remember when the state came and said they wanted our house," he said, gazing at his living room full of knickknacks and photos. "She took one look at that man and said, 'They're not getting it.' "
He smiled for a moment, lost in the memory.
Just as the rich seams of coal gave this town life in the 19th century – attracting immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Ukraine to the mining jobs – they began turning the town to dross when they caught fire in 1962. Mining was the engine of the bustling borough of 2,000, but as Americans turned increasingly to oil for heat, Centralia's population shrunk. By the time the fire started, there were roughly 1,000 residents.
At first, said Mayor Mervine, no one worried: "We'd had other fires before, and they'd always burned out. This one didn't."
Attempts to douse the fire with water proved unsuccessful, as did trenches, bore holes, and excavations. By 1980, the state had spent $3.5 million and the fire still raged.
"They didn't address it hard enough, fast enough," says Tim Altares, of the state Division of Mine Hazards. "They underestimated its size and potential to spread."
The situation became a technical, political, and financial quagmire, pitting neighbor against neighbor and residents against government. The state invoked eminent domain in the '90s, settling with homeowners and razing properties. The "stayers" are now squatters in homes they no longer own.
Mr. Altares explains that not every inch of the 150-acre town is on fire. The borough has 10 coal seams – three actively burning beneath 450 acres in and beyond the town limits. As the fire creeps along it leaves a trail of destruction: Trees reduced to white stalks protruding from patches of black. Buckled asphalt giving way to deep clefts.
It sounds more dramatic than it looks. The truth is, Altares explains, it's not that unusual. There are 38 other underground fires in Pennsylvania alone. One beneath Australia's Burning Mountain Nature Preserve is estimated to have been burning for 5,000 years.
With little fanfare, the town council – made up of half the 11 remaining residents – meets monthly to pay bills. And every day, the sun rises and sets, splashing the forested hills in pink and gold.
As resident John Comarnisky shared a porch swing with Mervine, enjoying the twitters of birds, he admitted they've grown tired of the attention: "People ask, 'Where's the fire?' They expect holes with flames shooting out and houses falling in."
Mr. Comarnisky's family moved here when he was a teen, and though his childhood home was sold, he fixed up a second family property and returned permanently after college. He fondly recalled crisp autumn afternoons watching the smoke curl from chimneys, and smelling the odor of the coal that kept everyone's homes warm.
He noted a strange thing: By making the town uninhabitable, the fire has created a bucolic utopia. "It's not real fancy around here, but it's nice if you want a quiet, rural place to live with plenty of space and no one in your face."
So Comarnisky and Mervine aren't budging.
"This is the only home I've ever owned, and I want to keep it," said Mervine. No price, he claimed, could make him leave, though the state's offer sits at the bank, awaiting his signature.
Comarnisky is equally stubborn: "There's something in my nature that says, 'You're not going to tell me what to do.' "
Not everyone felt that way. Comarnisky described how conflicted people were with their decisions: Some waited until the moving van arrived to finally admit they were leaving; others were revealed by the local paper's weekly listing of those who'd given up the fight.
Comarnisky does his best to dispel rumors about Centralia. Dollar bills don't catch on fire if dropped, and snow still sticks to the ground – 22 inches one year. He was appalled during a TV interview when a disenchanted cameraman jazzed up the visuals by pouring water on the rocks behind him to create steam.
" 'Raging inferno,' " he continued. "Those are words they love to use. 'What's it like to live in a ghost town?' How do you respond to that?"
Gazing out toward the empty lots kept neatly trimmed by remaining residents, he falls silent.
"There was a time when I was bothered by it, but not anymore," he said, pausing to watch a carload of tourists creep along Troutwine Street. "I'm happy here. If the rest of the universe doesn't know about it, then fine."
And as I leaned back against the porch rail, warm and content, it felt, oddly enough, like home.