Few Remain As 1962 Coal Town Fire Still Burns
February 06, 2010
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.”
Like Womer, resident John Lokitis Sr., 68, father of Lokitis Jr., was polite but short. “Why worry about it? When it comes, it comes. I don’t give a rat’s ass,” he said, shutting the door.
Those who remain in Centralia like to keep up appearances. In mid-January, Christmas decorations still adorned the street lamps, a large manger scene occupied a corner of the main intersection and a 2010 calendar hung in the empty borough building. But the holdouts are fighting a losing battle. The building’s wooden facade is in dire need of a paint job; in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, vandals recently knocked over dozens of tombstones. Nature has reclaimed parts of the town.
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.
A hand-lettered sign tacked to a tree near Womer’s home directs tourists to a rocky outcropping off the main street where opaque clouds of steam rise from the ground.
“It was a real community, and people loved the place,” said author and journalist Dave DeKok, who has been writing about Centralia for 30 years and recently published “Fire Underground,” an updated version of his 1986 book on the town. “People lived their entire lives in that town and would have been quite happy to get rid of the mine fire and keep on living there.”
With swifter action, DeKok said, that might have been Centralia’s destiny.
The fire began at the town dump and ignited an exposed coal vein. It could have been extinguished for thousands of dollars then, but a series of bureaucratic half-measures and a lack of funding allowed the fire to grow into a voracious monster — feeding on millions of tons of slow-burning anthracite coal in the abandoned network of mines beneath the town.
At first, most Centralians ignored the fire. Some denied its existence, choosing to disregard the threat.