Giant Burning Holes of the World

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


Spotty (now hopefully fixed) server aside, it's been fun watching new entries pour into the Atlas Obscura from people we've never met. I want to share a place that recently caught my eye, posted the other day by a user named Dave. It's a massive underground coal fire that's been smoldering beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania ever since 1962:

The town sits on top of a rich vein of coal, and the fire has defied every attempt to extinguish it. National awareness of Centralia's unending environmental catastrophe came in 1981 when a 12-year-old boy fell into a 150-foot hole that suddenly appeared in his back yard. Most residents were relocated in 1984, and in 1992 the entire town was condemned. Most buildings were torn down, creating the Centralia that can still be seen today: a network of streets running through empty fields and, increasingly, new growth forest. As of 2007, Centralia had nine residents.

Then Dylan told me about a similar, and even more dramatic, subterranean fire that's been burning for almost as long under the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan (pictured above). Locals call it the "Gates of Hell":

The hole is the outcome not of nature but of an industrial accident. In 1971 a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched into a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and the entire drilling rig to fall in. Having punctured a pocket of gas, poisonous fumes began leaking from the hole at an alarming rate. To head off a potential environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight. The crater hasn't stopped burning since.

Turns out, these sorts of mine fires can stay lit for a very long time. One burned in the city of Zwickau, Germany from 1476 to 1860. Another coal fire in Germany, at a place called Brennender Berg (Burning Mountain), has been smoking continually since 1688!


  1. Centralia should do like my annual BBQs: get friends to make a circle around hibachi and put out the flames “the old fashioned way”.

  2. That burning hole looks cool and all, but this story is so sad and disturbing to me. These fires are such a waste of natural resources and are so bad for the environment.

  3. Shoot… the site seems to be having problems again. Our developer was up late last night recalibrating the server. Whatever mojo he performed seemed to have it working pretty smoothly, but now it’s down again. We’re in the process of switching to a bigger, better, beefier (Boing-proof) server, but it could be a few hours. Please hang tight. We sincerely apologize.

  4. Very impressive photograph. I have a feeling Centralia inspired the setting of the videogame “Silent Hill.”


    Yup. It was for the film, at least.

  5. I’ve had that “Gates of Hell” photo as my desktop for about a year. I think it worries my cube-mate though…

  6. It seems that the server has being boingboinged to oblivion.
    But impressive photo indeed!

  7. Cool. Like an active volcanic crater, but in the middle of a flat plain instead of the top of a mountain. Much more convenient for sacrificing virgins.

  8. There’s one in Colorado that’s about 100 years old. You can actually see spots where the heat, from the underground fire, melts snow in the winter. It sparked the big storm king mountain fire that killed 14 firefighters in 2002.

  9. I’m sorry, but no Rodents of Unusual Size means none of these places qualify. Can’t something be done?

  10. Too bad they can’t slide in water pipes to make steam to run power turbines. I’m guessing the temperatures might be too high for that, or maybe there are other reasons it’s not practical.

  11. Australia’s Burning Mountain coal seam fire has been burning for an estimated 6,000 years and is the oldest coal seam fire in the world.

  12. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be about Kim Kardashian or Camden New Jersey. Turns out it was neither.

  13. Ther MUST be someway to generate power form these areas. If you can’t extinguish the fire, it seems like a double waste just letting them burn and not at least trying to get some power out of it.

  14. The locals around Centralia PA love to hunt in the buring areas. the year round warmth make for good places for animals to live.

    Be careful if you visit. Wear some orange.

  15. Hi:

    Out in the American West, Colorado specifically, there are many tall mesas with coal seams low down. When these coal seams have burned, the whole mesa is cooked into clinker, bright red rock that has a ceramic quality, and clinks when tapped with a tool or against other rocks.

    It’s common to find fossils burnt into a ceramic-like rock, with a deep pink or red hue.

    No telling how these ancient mesas caught fire, lightning, range fire, even set fires to drive prey animals into killing fields or over cliffs.

    I would assume that new fires beneath mesas out west would be possible, for sure all the mesas with coal seams in them haven’t already been burnt.

    That pit in Asia, though, it’s really amazing, like a porthole into hell for sure! I saw it some time back on a geological site, amazing!


  16. Peat can burn underground as well. My sister once accidentally started an underground peat fire- it burnt for a couple of days.

  17. I am planning a trip that will take me through Darvaza, among other things to document that flaming sink hole… as well as the sea of sand and ghost shipyards at Muynaq on the Aral Sea.

    The route *was* going to go through Iran… hopefully it will be safe for transit.

  18. Check out the documentary about the last remaining residents of Centralia, The Town That Was (

  19. Please name our new baby Joe,
    So he’ll grow up like big Joe.
    He’ll work and he’ll fight and
    he’ll fix up the mines,
    So fire can’t kill daddy no more.

    Dear sisters and brothers goodbye,
    Dear mother and father goodbye.
    My fingers are weak and I cannot write,
    Goodbye Centralia, goodbye.

    Lyrics: The Dying Miner, Woody Guthrie

  20. It’s interesting that people say these places are like hell – my guess is that these holes actually were the origin for people’s concept of hell in the first place.

    It seems pretty clear: fire, brimstone, underground. If Heaven is in the clouds, these pits sure look like a glimpse into the “other place” to me.

    1. my guess is that these holes actually were the origin for people’s concept of hell in the first place.

      Gehenna comes from Ge Hinnom or Hinnom Valley. It was the town dump for ancient Jerusalem and filled with fire and noxious fumes.

  21. Gehenna comes from Ge Hinnom or Hinnom Valley. It was the town dump for ancient Jerusalem and filled with fire and noxious fumes.

    It would just figure. 3,000 years people have feared eternal damnation. But all this time the ancient text was just saying we’d be sent to the dump if we misbehave (presumably instead of a proper burial).

  22. I am originally from Pottsville, PA, a few miles to the south of Centralia. It is very eery at night if you are able to drive through. Glowing plumes of smoke rise from vent holes in the ground. During the day if you look around you can see smoldering trees and asphalt roads that are caving in.

    Some people thought (and some still do) that coal companies and the government were in cahoots to evacuate the town and strip mine the area but that doesn’t seem to be possible considering the fires are so hot that water turns to steam before reaching the burning surfaces of the mine.

    It is fascinating!

  23. It’s dismaying that a few hyperintelligent-yet-short-lived bits of dirt routinely start fires in their planet’s crust that could last a thousand orbits, *by accident*.

    Imagine zapping into a universe in which someone could just trip at the wrong moment, and thus spark every river for miles to turn into perfectly transparent panes of glass for twenty generations, and you might have something approaching my level of panic here.

Comments are closed.