10 Naturally Occurring Eternal Flames

The active Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia at sunrise
Ethiopia's Erta Ale lava lake was discovered in 1906 and is still burning more than a century later. Harri Jarvelainen Photography / Getty Images

As its name suggests, an eternal flame is a fire that burns for an indefinite amount of time. It can be ignited intentionally or when lightning strikes a natural gas leak, peat, or a coal seam. In any case, "naturally occurring" eternal flames continue to burn without tending, even if they were lit by people initially—they are kept alight only by natural gas, coal, or volcanic gases. This fascinating phenomenon occurs all around the world, from Pennsylvania to Azerbaijan, and holds spiritual significance in some cultures and religions.

Here are 10 of the world's most eerily alluring, naturally occurring eternal flames.

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Door to Hell

People standing around the Door to Hell at night
EdoTealdi / Getty Images

Located in the middle of the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, this natural gas field was discovered in the 1970s by Soviet petrochemical engineers. Shortly after the drilling operation was established, the ground underneath the site collapsed, burying the rig and camp. Luckily, no lives were lost, but as large quantities of poisonous methane gas spewed from the site, engineers decided the safest option would be to set the gas alight and let it burn off rather than endanger nearby villagers by continuing to extract it. The fire was expected to last only for a few weeks, but half a century later, the Door to Hell—also called the Darvaza gas crater—is still burning.

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Low-angle view of cracked asphalt due to underground fire
weible1980 / Getty Images

Once home to more than 1,000 people, Centralia, Pennsylvania, became a ghost town after an uncontrollable coal mine fire forced the evacuation of almost all of its residents in 1984. The fire is believed to have sparked in 1962, but it wasn't until decades later that residents began noticing the tangible effects of having a subterranean wildfire blazing underneath their homes and businesses.

A now-famous road that was once part of Route 61 buckled under the pressure, emitting smoke from its vast cracks until about 2017. Since being abandoned, visitors have taken to decorating it with graffiti. Today, fewer than 10 people live in Centralia, though plenty of tourists stop by to explore the melting asphalt and sinkholes.

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Smoking Hills

People photographing the smoking hills from a boat

Se Mo / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Located in Canada's Northwest Territories, on Cape Bathurst's east coast, the Smoking Hills are rugged, red-orange cliffs that have been continuously smoking for centuries. The Smoking Hills were discovered and named by explorer John Franklin in 1826, hundreds of years after they started burning. They conceal underground sulfur- and coal-rich oil shales whose combustible gases ignite as the cliffs erode and expose them to oxygen.

What Is Oil Shale?

Oil shale is sedimentary rock containing solid organic matter that yields petroleum products, like oil and combustable gas.

The eternal flame has chemically altered the soil, sediment, and water in the area. Local indigenous communities have long relied on the coal in this region—the nearest community, Paulatuk, is even named after the Inuvialuktun word for "place of coal."

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Eternal Flame Falls

Waterfall with an eternal flame behind it, New York
Gregory Pleau / www.gregorypleau.com / Getty Images

Perpetually flickering inside a grotto behind a waterfall in New York's Chestnut Ridge County Park, this small flame is fueled by a deposit of natural gas believed to be emanating from a hydrocarbon seep from Upper Devonian-era shales. The flame sometimes sputters out and must be reignited by passing hikers carrying lighters. In any case, the gas keeps it alight throughout all seasons—even when the waterfall that surrounds it freezes over.

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Erta Ale

Bright-red view of lava lake in Erta Ale volcano

guenterguni / Getty Images

Erta Ale, meaning "smoking mountain" in the Afar language, is a 2,011-foot-high basaltic shield volcano located in the Afar Depression, an Ethiopian desert. Its most notable feature is its active lava lake, a phenomenon so rare there are only a handful of persistent lava lakes on the planet—the rest are relatively short-lived.

The lava lake occurs because of an underground pool containing active magma. Erta Ale's goes through phases, occasionally cooling (in which a black layer can be seen on top) and spewing 13-foot-high plumes. It's the world's longest-existing lava lake, discovered in 1906.

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Jharia Coalfield

Dog amid noxious fumes from fissures in the ground, Jharia
Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

The smoldering fields in Jharia, Jharkhand, are one of India's most valuable coal resources, containing about 20 billion tons of coking coal. The fields are located on top of an underground fire that has been burning since at least 1916. Unlike the case with Centralia, hundreds of thousands of people still reside in Jharia despite the water and air pollution created by the coalfield's century-old underground fire.

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Guanziling Water and Fire Cave

Cave burning at the Fire and Water Spring

月亮灣 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Because the town of Guanziling near Tainan City in Taiwan sits on a fault line containing methane deposits, the gas often escapes into the air through cracks in the Earth. In the case of the famous Water and Fire Cave, methane bubbles that emerge from the hot springs provide fuel to a flame that was lit more than 300 years ago, as legend goes.

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Yanar Dag

Natural gas fire blazing continuously on a hillside near Baku

kaetana_istock / Getty Images

According to Greek mythology, the Caucasus Mountains that stretch between the Black and Caspian seas is where Zeus chained Prometheus, the Titan god of fire, after discovering that he had stolen a spark from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Thus, the country of Azerbaijan, which is home to the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, is often referred to as the Land of Fire. It even has a red flame as the centerpiece of its national emblem. The nickname is corroborated by its "burning mountain," Yanar Dag.

Emanating from a weak layer of porous sandstone on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula, this ever-burning natural gas fire is capable of shooting nine-foot flames. The best time to observe the colors of the flames is at dusk.

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Baba Gurgur

Eternal Fire of Baba Gurgur surrounded by grass

Chad.r.hill / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This burning oil field near the city of Kirkuk, Iraq, is one of the largest in the world—second only to Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field. Baba Gurgur was discovered in the '20s and is a large source of energy, but it's also an important cultural and spiritual site for the local residents. In ancient times, when fire worshipping was common, expectant mothers visited the site to pray for baby boys.

Some believe this burning field is referenced in the Bible as the "fiery furnace" of the Old Testament's Book of Daniel. In that story, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon threw a group of Hebrews into the flames for refusing to idol worship.

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Eternal fires coming out of rock on Mount Chimera
MykolaIvashchenko / Getty Images

Turkey's Yanartaş (meaning "flaming stone") is an odd geographical site that features dozens of little fires caused by methane gas vents in a rocky mountainside. The fires have been burning for an estimated 2,500 years. Yanartaş is believed to be the ancient Mount Chimaera, where the legend of the chimera, a mythical fire-breathing hybrid monster composed of body parts from several different animals (usually a lion, goat, and snake), emerged.