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Paris Review | American Inferno


By

Centralia has been on fire for almost fifty years.

The mines under the town—a vast network designed to tap the veins of purplish anthracite coal that spread weblike throughout the county—have been burning since 1962. The conflagration probably began in a stripping pit next to the cemetery, creeping along the deposits of fuel, burning up to three hundred feet underground. The town grew so warm that some residents no longer needed to turn on their basement hot-water heaters. Toxic plumes erupted, tree roots turned to ash, vegetables roasted on their stalks. The earth became unstable, and yawning holes opened into underground pits without warning: in 1981, twelve-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sulfurous 150-foot-deep maw that appeared suddenly in his grandmother’s backyard, narrowly escaping incineration by grabbing onto a tree root. Efforts to stop the flames—clay seals to cut off oxygen, slurry pumped into the honeycombed caverns—proved useless. In the eighties, the federal government began relocating the town’s remaining population, razing their homes and shutting down a segment of the highway that had erupted. The fire may burn for another 250 years, encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of fuel.

Read the entire article at the Paris Review – American Inferno.

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