“This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.”
David DeKok, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire (1986)
Once a small industrial centre in the US state of Pennsylvania, Centralia owed its prosperity to the anthracite-rich coal mines running beneath it. At its peak the town was home to 2761 people and
boasted five hotels, seven churches, 19 general stores, two jewellery shops and about 26 saloons. Then, 50 years ago, a seemingly innocuous landfill fire ignited an exposed coal seam, setting in motion a chain of events that ultimately saw Centralia gain a reputation as one of America’s most infamous ghost towns.
Centralia was established in 1854 on the back of a booming Pennsylvanian coal industry. In 1944, Pennsylvanian coal production peaked at almost 209 million tonnes, but declined steadily thereafter.
After the end of World War II, the majority of the home and commercial heating market favoured oil and natural gas, and oil became the most popular fuel used at railroads and shipyards.
New processing methods meant that coal was no longer a necessary component of the basic metal-smelting industry, with improved technology decreasing the amount of coke needed to produce a tonne of iron. This diminished demand for coal led the majority of mining operators in Centralia to go out of business by 1960.
Consequently, Centralia was already a town in decline when the fire department set an uncovered coal seam alight on May 27, 1962. In an attempt to clean up the town for Memorial Day celebrations, five volunteer firefighters set a heap of rubbish on fire in an abandoned mine pit that doubled as the Centralia’s landfill site. An exposed vein of anthracite coal burst into flame, prompting immediate efforts to put it out.
While the flames on the surface were successfully extinguished, the coal continued to burn underground: an unsealed opening in the pit allowing the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. As apprehension spread quickly among the town’s residents, a ravenous fire steadily migrated further beneath them.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources immediately began drilling holes into the ground in order to determine the scope and heat of the blaze. Unwittingly, these openings fed the growing fire with oxygen. As many residents complained of headaches, dizziness and nausea – symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure – the Department installed gas monitors in Centralian homes as a precaution.
However, the complaints continued. In 1969, a more involved effort was made to contain the fire using trenches and clay seals, but this also met with failure. Smoke and steam, laden with toxic gases, started seeping through fissures in the roads and from hilltops around the town. Following this, three families were ordered to move from the most hazardous part of Centralia.
In the 1970s, concerns about the severity of the extensive subterranean fire escalated when a gas station owner noticed that the fuel in his underground storage tank seemed hot. Measuring
the gasoline temperature, the man was shocked when his gauge registered a troubling 82 degrees Celsius.
Attempts to extinguish or contain the fire continued, including flushing the mines with water and excavating the burning coal: all to no avail.
In 1980, the US Bureau of Mines reported that “the Centralia mine fire has not been extinguished and has not been controlled”. In that year, 27 more families were moved out of the town.
The town received nationwide attention on February 14, 1981, when the fire-weakened ground collapsed under 12-year-old local Todd Domboski.
As a sinkhole about 1.2m in diameter and about 42m deep opened under him, Domboski clung desperately to exposed tree roots before being pulled to safety by his cousin. The heat and carbon monoxide in the breach was sufficient to kill him instantly, had the boy fallen a little deeper.
From 1962 to 1983, more than $7 million was spent trying to extinguish and contain the fire, which was now burning underneath about 350 surface acres.
By 1983, the US Government conceded that the underground fire was pressing forward on three or four fronts. After an official study concluded that an extensive trenching program would cost more than $600 million, with no guarantee of success, a Government buy-out of the town was proposed instead. Centralian homeowners then voted 345 to 200 in favour of accepting the buy-out deal and in 1984, the US Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts.
The majority of residents accepted the offer and moved to nearby communities. By the end of the 1980s, more than 1000 people had left Centralia and 500 houses had been demolished. Some
holdouts refused to leave, even after all the remaining houses were seized by the Government in the 1990s.
By 1991, the fire was burning underneath 600 acres. Today the fire is still smouldering, and the eight-mile-long coal seam provides enough fuel for it to do so for the next 250 years. There are no
further plans to extinguish the fire and most modern maps no longer show where Centralia once stood.
The Centralia mine fire has also maintained a grip on popular imagination, drawing visitors from around the world to see the steam that intermittently rises from the ground and the abandoned
streets where nature has reclaimed a once-flourishing coal town.