Could you believe this? In Jharia, India, just below the earth’s surface, there is fire rage unimpeded. It is slowly consuming a vast store of coal and occasionally opening immense chasms that swallow everything above them. Johnny Haglund for Wired documented what it’s like living with such an inferno for The Earth is on Fire, which recently took second place at Pictures of the Year International for Science and Natural History Picture Story.
These fires started back in 1916. The best explanation to this is that they are the result of coal mines that were improperly shut down. Twenty years ago, the earth opened and destroyed 250 houses in just two hours. The flames have chewed through 41 million tons of the coal, worth billions of dollars, over the time. It will be surprising to know that today, some 70 fires are currently burning.
There are people who live here, among smoke and toxic fumes that constantly seep out of the earth. This causes espiratory and skin problems. When Haglund had visited Jharia, he himself had experienced the danger and discomfort last year.
At the end of every day I had a layer of coal on my clothes and my skin and sometimes and I often felt like my face was burning. I had pretty heavy boots, but sometimes just walking around the soles almost melted off. I have been [working as a photojournalist] for many years, and I never get used to kids suffering. I saw young kids—six or seven years old—carrying coal with no shoes on, breathing that air. It was terrible.
Some people steal coal from the 20-plus mines and sell it in local markets or use it for cooking and heating to eke out a living. It happens that they are not noticed by the authorities, but in the process, they often end up injured or getting killed by falling into fissures. Many of them are children, struggling up the mine’s embankments with heavy loads.
For obvious reasons, underground fires are notoriously difficult to put out. For decades, a similar fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania has burned, eventually forcing most residents to relocate.It has been said that Jharia has enough coal to burn for another 3,800 years. Fires can be extinguished by sand, water, or cutting off the oxygen supply.
Bureaucratic holdups and local resistance are the chief reasons why relocation of residents has not been possible. Haglund said that he spoke to many families who would gladly move, but said the government hadn’t offered them enough money and they can’t afford to leave on their own. He said, “They feel stuck.”