The Town that's on Fire

In a previous post series entitled Off the Beaten Path, I discussed unique travel destinations in the United States.

One such place that I mentioned is called Centralia--a one-of-a-kind community located in North Central Pennsylvania.


Centralia is a town like no other.

Sure, it is small. The community lies in an old coal mining region. The hills and curves on area roads can make winter driving very interesting.

But that is not what makes people remember this place.

Centralia is likely the only town in the world that is on fire: literally.

The favored theory explaining this mess goes back to 1962 when a small fire started in a local garbage dump. Unfortunately, the flames spread and ignited nearby coal veins to create a massive blaze that burns uncontrollably underneath Centralia.

Efforts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and the flames have now burned for more than 47 years--with no end in sight.

In the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania declared Centralia, with the high levels of carbon monoxide, sink holes, and other environmental issues, a health hazard and acquired all properties in the town through eminent domain.

The majority of the people followed the State's warnings and left, but not everyone.

For a decade, the State did not enforce the relocation order; hoping that negotiation and attrition would solve the problem of those people who remained--but still several hardened residents refused to leave.

A couple of years ago, government officials took a more aggressive approach and began bulldozing homes. The goal is to make Centralia a "ghost town."

As the struggle between government and the individual plays out in this community, naturally, human interest stories like these have made the national news lately:

Standing before the wreckage of his bulldozed home, John Lokitis Jr. felt sick to his stomach, certain that a terrible mistake had been made.

He'd fought for years to stay in the house. It was one of the few left standing in the moonscape of Centralia, a once-proud coal town whose population fled an underground mine fire that began in 1962 and continues to burn.

But the state had ordered Lokitis to vacate, leaving the fourth-generation Centralian little choice but to say goodbye – to the house, and to what's left of the town he loved.

"I never had any desire to move," said Lokitis, 39. "It was my home."

...(In the past two decades) More than 1,000 people moved out, and 500 structures were razed under a $42 million federal relocation program.

But dozens of holdouts, Lokitis included, refused to go – even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s.

They said the fire posed little danger to their part of town, accused government officials and mining companies of a plot to grab the mineral rights and vowed to stay put. State and local officials had little stomach to oust the diehards, who squatted tax- and rent-free in houses they no longer owned...

The remaining holdouts, weary after decades of media scrutiny, rarely give interviews. But the town's 86-year-old mayor, Carl Womer, said he doubts he'll have to go.

Indeed, Lokitis and others believe that elderly residents will be allowed to live out their final years in Centralia – even after a Columbia County judge decides next month how much they should be paid for their homes.

"Nothing's happened. We're still here," said Womer, whose wife, Helen, who died in 2001, was an implacable foe of relocation. "No one's told us to move."

In reality, Centralia is already a memory – an intact street grid with hardly anything on it. All the familiar places that define a town – churches, businesses, schools, homes – are long gone...

While Lokitis felt he was in no danger, he had little recourse than to move from his late grandfather's two-story row home on West Park Street when an order to vacate arrived, one of two such notices sent last year.

Now living a few miles away, he tacked a sign on the front porch of the old homestead. "REQUIESCAT IN PACE" – rest in peace, it said. "SORRY POP."

He couldn't bear to watch the home get knocked down a few weeks before Christmas. But he couldn't stay away, either, going back after the wrecking crew had finished its work.

"It was part of my life for all 39 years, that house," he said. "It was difficult to leave it and difficult to see it demolished."

Difficult, too, to give up his dream of Centralia's rebirth.

I can understand not wanting to leave your home (especially one that has been in your family for generations), but when the quality of life deteriorates so much that your home is no longer recognizable, and conditions make it unsafe for your family to continue to reside there, I would have called it quits.

No need for me to wait and watch sink holes like this develop...

Or crumbling roads showing the fires energy going on underground...

Or water that resembles some sort of orange Kool-Aid flavor before I decide to relocate.

But each of us is a little different.


Note: All photos were used from this site.


Audrey Allure said...

I'm with you on this one. I'm sure they don't want to leave for sentimental reasons but when their town is falling apart & becoming dangerous, I'd leave too.

Sue said...

That place gives me a weird vibe. I didn't even know it existed until today, and I could drive there within a few hours if I wanted to.

You know, they DO have companies that can move the entire house to a new location. Too bad they didn't know about that before.

Elena said...

I can smell the town through this post...yikes!

Javajune said...

This is sad and scary and kind of eery too. What a strange occurance. You find the most interesting things to share.

Bob G. said...

When I was living in Philly, I recall when this story first broke...
Damn shame and a reminder of how we (as a species) need to take care when mucking about with "Mother Earth".

In this case, leaving town makes more sense than remaining, due to things that CANNOT be changed at this time.

In neighborhoods that regentrify, due to societal or economic changes (and not always for the better), remaining there brings it's OWN me on this one.

I can understand the want to becomes more principle driven than anything else.

Were my area subject to nature instead of thuggery, I'd probably have to leave, but as it stands now, I choose to remain.
Should the time come to vacate the area, it will be on MY terms and for all the right reasons.
But I'm a thick-headed Dutchman (as Dad used to say).

Good post and pictures.

Natalie said...

I have to admit, I've been living in the same town for over 20 years, but if it was dangerous to just walk on the ground near my home, I'd move in a heartbeat.

You ask some interesting questions that may explain why some residents will stay put in a dying community.

My Husband's Watching TV... said...

That's crazy! It's like a scene out of a movie where the world is ending. This place is definately different than Centralia, MO!

Herding Cats said...

I'm sorry but fires underground? I'd be out so fast! I understand the nostalgia, but seriously?

CL Beck, author: MormonMishaps said...

Very, VERY interesting post. So sad, though, for the people who called Centralia home.

Elana Johnson said...

I only have two words: Holy crap!

And, yeah. I'd move too. Great pictures.

Momma Fargo said...

Eery. I would have protected my family also. All I want to know is...where is the dude that started the garbage fire?

Stephanie Faris said...

I'd never heard of this. Wow! And inhaling all of that can't be safe. But then you saw people in Hurricane Katrina, refusing to leave their homes even though it meant possible death.

Michelle Gilliam said...

Maybe he should watch Dante's Peak...I understand sentimentality but safety comes first. I do hope they can set him up in something else where he can live out his years happy.Thanks for the education- I did not know about it. -nuttgill

Sultana said...

Oh dear, the place is something else. I don't know, but I'm sure I would not just stay matter how I attached to the palce I was.

Confessions From A Working Mom said...

I like your crime posts, but this one was absolutely riveting for me. I'd never heard of Centralia, although I did recently see a piece (maybe on Dateline? 20/20?) about a town in the Plains that had been seized by eminent domain because of health concerns. IT always baffles me why people would want to live someplace that could kill them.

Confessions From A Working Mom

The Babaylan said...


Aphrodite's Mortal Friend (ME) said...

OK- I wasw so gonna ask about the photos until I saw your last few comment- the sink hoe- WOW- I can not imagine. BUT, as for the whole fire thinr- really- I mean REALLY? That's un flippin' real! Man- have a great Wednesday- I think we live on totally differnt schedules, hu.

makingnew said...

I just heard about this from a girl at work - crazy! That sinkhole is scary.

Rowe said...

Very interesting, SD. I could not imagine myself wanting to live in a place like Centralia. It sounds like it would be a good setting for some movies, though.

James (SeattleDad) said...

I grew up a short distance from a town in WA called Centrailia. Not a great place to live around, but at least it is not on fire.

imbeingheldhostage said...

I heard about this place a long time ago-- thanks for reminding me of it. It breaks my heart. I grew up in a small town and I think I would have been one of the people who would have stayed until they physically made me leave. Sentiment is stronger than common sense in my case.

Dan said...

But the real question is what the fire underfoot did to the cost of winter heating. I seem to remember that it made the summers unbearable warm, but I can't remember what it did to the winter temperatures.

Sad none the less.

angelcel said...

How incredible.

You'll probably think I've lost my mind in saying this but I'm all about free will and while *I* wouldn't stay, I do find myself wondering if those who want to stay shouldn't be allowed to do so. In my ideal world I'd explain all the risks and then leave it up to them.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Oh, man, that is like living in hell. I am surprised everybody didn't leave, but then Stephanie mentioned Katrina. I almost understand why people stayed.

They were poor and/or they saw their way of life would be completely lost if they left.

I left RiverTown for every hurricane after the first one. Never again--Andrew was enough for me.

Ann T.

LadyFi said...

Wow -- it's been burning for 47 years1 Astounding!

malone8 said...

Each of us may be different, yet each of us has the ability to use common sense.

We have a responsibility to do what is best for oneself and for our family.

JJ Russell said...

Very interesting read. I like the way you write keeping the readers attention. I am with you and the rest of your readers that I can understand the sentimental value of your home and not wanting to leave. But at the same time it seems to be a erie place. Didn't the base a movie on that place. Not what happen in the movie just the weirdness of that town. The movie called "Silent Hill"?!?

AB HOME Interiors said...

I just heard about this place last christmas. It is crazy to me that they cannot fix it! Wow 47 years!

suzicate said...

I think I saw a documentary on tv a few years ago about this place. I think I'd want to get the heck out of Dodge so to speak...but I know first hand how people feel about their homes. I grew up in Nelson county, VA which wasdevastated in areas when Hurricane Camille hit in 69, and there were old timers who refused to leave when helicopters came in to rescue them.

Kristen @ Motherese said...

Am I the only one wondering if Steven King is going to set his next novel in Centralia?

kristaandjess said...

Centralia is absolutely one of the most fascinating places in the country! Thanks for covering this!

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for the comments all.

@Sue: Good point.

@Bob G.: I did not think of that comparison. It is never easy to move from one's home, and in your case, you just should not ever have to.

@Momma Fargo: The story I remember is that local government's plan to make the location firesafe had run behind schedule and some of the parallel work done by some volunteer firefighters accidentally started the blaze.

@ Confessions: No, I did not see that program. Sounds interesting though and I guess it happens more often that I knew.

@ Angelcel: Excellent point. This one is a difficult case for me as I think we have similar views about free choice. I do understand the emergency responders fears of trying to make it to such a location in the event of an emergency or the public costs if rescues are needed when the situation worsens.

@JJ: No, I have not seen that movie and will have to look it up and read about it.

J. J. in Phila said...

The story has always intrigued me.

It is a shame that people can only say, "I was from Centralia.

Jia said...

thanks for the info. I have learnt something today!

Selma said...

I had no idea. It is like something from a Stephen King novel. How terrifying and sad for the residents.

Sarah Ahiers said...

ok this is obviously an old post, but i came here from your post today that linked here.
This. Is. Totally. Crazy.