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Centralia: the 60-year-old fire

Nearly 60 years ago a coal mine fire began under the borough of Centralia, Pennsylvania. It continues to burn today.

Now an abandoned near-ghost town, the fire could burn for over 250 years. It is thought that the fire began when, in May 1962, residents used an old strip mine on the edge of Centralia as a new landfill to clean up the borough’s rubbish in time for Memorial Day. The dump was set alight, as it had been in its previous location, and left to burn for a time. However, the fire was never fully extinguished, spreading through an unsealed opening in the pit, setting a seam of coal alight.

Image: Sign at the beginning of Route 61, at Centralia
Image Credit: Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons

It is said that Indigenous people of the area sold the land that makes up Centralia to colonial agents for £500 in 1749. A portion of the land was at one point owned by one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris, and eventually the town itself was founded by an Alexander Rea.

Image: Map of Centralia area showing conditions before mine fire
Image Credit: Vasiliy Meshko, Wikimedia Commons

Since coal was found in the area in 1848, coal mining was central to life in Centralia. It was incorporated into a borough in 1866, by the town’s founder, Alexander Rea. However, in 1868, Rea was murdered by a group of men, identified as Molly Maguires. Although some have suggested that members of the Mollie Maguires were framed, due to a fear that they, alongside other organisations, would organise the mine workers into unions.

Image: Centralia in 1983, Centralia in recent years
Image Credit: Reddit 

The fire has been burning over a stretch of 13 km, around an area of 15 km2 and approximately 300ft below ground since 1962. There were some attempts to excavate and put the fire out, but, due to the popularity of mining in Centralia in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were a huge number of abandoned mining tunnels which could be helping to fuel the fire.

The fire went unchecked up to the 1980s, heat rose to around 480 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit) in some underground areas, the town roads cracked, sinkholes created, trees bleached white, smoke billowed through the air, spreading carbon monoxide, and causing the population to complain of health issues.

Image: Road through Centralia, Pennsylvania
Image Credit: Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons

The cost of stopping the fire was too high for the town, and most of the population was evacuated and moved elsewhere and most buildings demolished. Relocation costs were provided, with the relocation being voluntary up to 1992, when it became compulsory. However, some residents refused to leave, causing some eviction battles, but in 2013 the state gave in. Centralia’s population originally sat at around 1,500, and all but 5 of this population had been evacuated up to 2017.

Tourists often visit the town, many adding to the now graffiti covered road, nicknamed Graffiti Highway.

Image: Part of Graffiti Highway, at Centralia 
Image Credit: ‘formulanoneWikimedia Commons

The 2006 movie adaptation of Silent Hill took inspiration from Centralia.

There are thousands of similar underground coal fires happening across the globe. In New South Wales, Australia, sits Burning Mountain, where the oldest known coal seam fire burns below, estimated to have burned for around 6,000 years, being contained within a nature reserve. The world’s largest producer of coal, China, is said to have some serious issues with coal fires, causing economic issues as well as environmental issues.

Fires like the one in Centralia threaten a lot of life, causing huge environmental issues, adding to global warming.

One thought on “Centralia: the 60-year-old fire

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  1. I was born in 1962 so I have some serious perspective on how long this fire has been burning. The side-by-side photos of 1983 and of recent really tell the story without words. Have to wonder why anyone – even the handful of stubborn residents – would refuse to evacuate. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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