Geo

No One Can Stop This American Town From Burning

By Amber Healy - September 12, 2018

Memorial Day weekend 1962 started off normally enough in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

A Small Bonfire... That’s All It Was Supposed to Be

Credits: Photo: Peter and Laila / Flickr

As had been done in previous years, the local volunteer fire company wanted to spruce the place up for the summer and the holiday weekend, so a few members went out to the town landfill to start a small bonfire. That’s all it was supposed to be.

They did what they’d done before, setting fire to the 91.5-meter-wide (300 feet), 23-meter-long (75 feet) pit of a landfill and expecting it to burn for a few hours and then they’d get on with their festivities to welcome the summer.

The Ghost Town That Burns To This Day

Credits: Centralia started as a mining town. Photo: Travis Goodspeed / Flickr

And that’s where things went wrong and destroyed the town, forcing it to become a ghost town that continues to burn to this day and will likely burn for longer than any of us are alive.

Centralia, which is closer to eastern Pennsylvania than its actual center and is seated in Columbia County, was founded as a mining town. It sits upon a massive deposit of anthracite, a compact kind of coal with an exceptionally high carbon content – between 92% and 98% — and the highest energy density of all varieties of coal. This makes it an outstanding source of fuel, but it takes a lot to anthracite to combust.

The History of Anthracite

Credits: Photo: James St. John

Anthracite’s history in the United States ties back in a really strong way to Pennsylvania and the state’s history, its development and settlement. The first place where anthracite was mined here was Pottsville in 1790, where a hunter named Necho Allen allegedly fell asleep in a camp at the foot of Broad Mountain, waking up to a large fire sparked by his campfire spreading to an outcropping of the coal. Within five years, a coal furnace was on the Schuylkill River, the creation of the coal region’s reputation.

Opening the Door to Commercial Mining

Credits: 2800 people called Centralia home prior to the blaze. Photo: offroaders.com

By 1808, anthracite was starting to be used as a source of home-heating fuel, hitting its stride a few months later and opening the door to commercial mining, with more than 100 million tons removed from under the earth by 1917. During the Civil War, it was the preferred fuel for Confederate blockade runners because its lack of smoke kept their positions invisible.

Centralia itself was founded in 1866 by Alexander Rae, but he wasn’t long for the town – he was killed by gang members in 1868.

Centralia reached its peak population in 1890, with 2,800 residents. It didn’t take long for the anthracite mining there to reach its pinnacle and then start to decline, especially considering there were at least five mines in the town, Locust Run, Coal Ridge, Hazeldell Colliery, Centralia and the Continental Mine, all operational by 1865.

A Sparsely Populated Town With Several Mines

Credits: The calm before the storm. Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

The town only had about 2,000 people by 1950. It was never a bustling metropolis but it was a rather close community, very family friendly and near enough to other places so people could live in Centralia and drive a short distance to other jobs once mining died out.

Which brings us to that fateful day.

A sparsely populated town perched atop a coal vein, with several abandoned mines scattered throughout town, one of which is now under the town’s landfill.

Back in the Day People Burned Garbage

Credits: Before the EPA showed to inform people the risks of doing so, burning garbage was normal. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Back in the 1960s, open burning was a common practice, not just in Centralia but in lots of small towns. It was a quick and efficient way to get rid of waste and garbage and, in their defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t around until the 1970s to tell people about air pollution and smog and how smoke travels and how burning can create health problems.

So the firefighters lit their garbage. They had plenty of hoses and water on hand to keep things under control.

They Didn't Notice the Fire Growing

Credits: A controlled burn quickly got out of hand. Photo: Travis Goodspeed / Flickr

They didn’t notice the subterranean opening. They didn’t see the fire fall through it, down into the earth, into the mine, where untouched anthracite remained.

Some accounts, including one by author Joan Quigley, say there were two fires at the dump, one starting the day prior to the firefighter’s controlled burn, when a trash hauler dumped hot coal or ash in the same location.

The city had been in the process of sealing off the mines with clay to prevent just such fires from happening but had fallen behind in their efforts.

Either way, the firefighters had their pre-Memorial Day fire and tended it with great care, dousing it with water when the trash was gone.

The fire didn’t get the memo.

It kept smoldering, unnoticed, overnight and through the next day. When smoke was still noticed coming up out of the ground, the firefighters realized the fire had fallen into the pit and tried again to extinguish it.

They kept trying. Clay and ash and water by the ton. The town brought in excavators to get rid of the smoldering masses but that didn’t end the fire. It has spread through the abandoned mines and could not be contained as it snaked around underground. They tried filling in the mines to smother the fire and make it die. Nothing doing.

Constant Out-Of-Sight-But-Not-Out-Of-Mind Burning

Credits: Centralia felt the wrath of the fire burning underneath the town. Photo: Peter and Laila / Flickr

Slowly, the long-burning fire began to make life difficult for people in Centralia. Steam would come up out of any opening in the ground. The heat began to warp and crack the asphalt roads, sometimes melting it and creating holes. Within 15 to 20 years of constant out-of-sight-but-not-out-of-mind burning under their feet, the carbon monoxide levels in the town began to rise to unsafe levels.

Then the Evacuations Began

Credits: Underground gasoline storage tanks were starting to super-heat. Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

In 1979, a gas station owner in town decided he would take the temperature of his underground storage tanks. Some 17 years after the fire started, the town fully understood how bad things really were: the gas in the containers was 100 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it should’ve been. Yikes.

Then the evacuations began.

At first, it was about 200 acres of the town that were condemned and people were told to leave their homes.

A 13 Kilometer Fire

Credits: Anthracite was a near-endless fuel for this fire. Photo: Amuderick / Flickr

In 1983, an engineering study determined, based on the size of the fire, the size of the anthracite reserves underground and the rate at which one was consuming the other, it was very possible that Centralia’s unseen fire would burn for another 100 years or more, consuming up to 3,700 acres.

An acre, by the way, is roughly the size of an American football field. The fire covers about 13 kilometers (eight miles).

All They Could Do Was Give Up

Credits: Common sense lead the residents to evacuate. Photo: Dmitry K / Flickr

Upon learning that the fire would burn for a century or two, the state realized it was fighting a losing battle. All it could do was give up and try to move everyone out of town for their own safety.  The majority of the town’s population, standing at about 1,100 people in the 1980s, accepted federal assistance to pack up and move to a better, less Dante’s Inferno-type location, an effort that cost some $42 million to undertake.  The relocation effort wasn’t completed until 2005.

Screaming for His Life

Credits: Photo: Jennifer Boyer / Flickr

The houses that were left behind were largely leveled in order to prevent people from coming back for a thrill or squatting in the vacant homes in terribly unsafe conditions. There was good reason for the effort: In 1981, a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole caused by the fire. He saved himself from falling deeper by grabbing onto some tree roots and literally screaming for his life until a cousin heard him. The whole ordeal lasted less than a minute but it was enough. It also turned his father’s comments from four years earlier into a prophetic statement: “I guess some kid will have to get killed by the gas or by falling into one of these steamy holes before anyone will call it an emergency.”

Some People Refused to Leave

Credits: Centralia then and now. Photo: theharlemline.com/Emily

Roughly a dozen people refused to leave, despite the lack of anything in town that would make it a town. In 2003, the last handful of people living there came to an agreement with the state, giving them permission to live atop the fire until they died. When that happens, their properties, like the rest of the town, will be condemned and destroyed.

Something of a Tourist Attraction

Credits: The roads through Centralia look like an earthquake had hit. Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

The main road through what’s left of Centralia, Route 61, is badly cratered. The holes are filled with debris including melted plastic bottles. A stretch of the road has become something of a tourist attraction, with people coming from far and wide to draw on it with chalk. For a time, Pennsylvania police would patrol the area and shoo away these colourful vandals; their efforts seem to have waned in recent years.

Centralia Is Not Safe

Credits: Centralia no longer even has a zip code. Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

To be clear, Centralia is not safe. Smoke still comes up out of the ground and through venting pipes. Most buildings have collapsed or been torn down. A church and a county fire department building are among the last structures still upright. The church still hosts services for Ukrainian Catholics on Sundays and holidays. Things are so dire that, in 2002, two years after the underground fire reached the town’s cemetery, the U.S. government revoked Centralia’s zip code.

Prone to Sudden and Unexpected Collapse

Credits: Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

The EPA has posted signs around the town’s perimeter: “Walking and/or driving in the immediate area could result in serious injury or death. There are dangerous gases present and the ground is prone to sudden and unexpected collapse.”

Route 61 has been diverted so that people circumvent Centralia on their way to the next town, Ashland.

Garbage Is Everywhere

Credits: The entire area is now more a garbage dump than a town. Photo: Centraliapa.org

Ironically for a town whose claim to fame was started by a poorly controlled trash fire, that’s the one thing growing in population in Centralia: garbage is everywhere. After all, people are drawn to Centralia for its curiosity and novelty factor in being a ghost town, but no one lives there and the town isn’t maintained, so why not just keep throwing old tires and other debris there?

People Heard the Story of Centralia and Wanted to Know More

Credits: Photo: Centraliapa.org

In 2017, a new documentary on Centralia was announced, promising to tell the whole story of the town that burns. Titled “Pennsylvania’s Lost Town,” the hour-long movie drew big crowds, selling out the few nights it ran in theaters. It wasn’t just people who lived in the town and were featured in the movie who were eager to see it; it was people who heard the stories and wanted to know more.

Gonna Let It Burn, Burn Burn

Credits: Centralia: now part of pop culture lore.

“It breaks my heart to go back because I remember what it was like years ago, but people who have never seen the town when it was populated will probably make them a little bit upset too,” said Ann Joyce of Pine Grove who, along with her sister, Mary Umlauf, were among those in attendance on the movie’s second night.

The town’s influence on pop culture isn’t limited to the movie (now available on Netflix). Centralia might look and feel familiar to aficionados of the video game and movie “Silent Hill,” as the ghost town served as inspiration for the game’s setting, down to the foggy or ash-filled air.

Centralia Isn't the Only Home to an Unending Fire

Credits: Neverending fires are more common than you might think.

Centralia’s underground and unending fire isn’t the only one in the world, of course. It’s not even the only one in Pennsylvania. In 2014 the state government announced the allocation of $1.4 million to fight and finally put out an underground fire that was threatening the Pittsburgh International Airport. That fire is believed to have been caused by a lightning strike hitting a coal waste deposit. At the time, the fire had been burning for six or seven years and was one of an estimated 100 unseen fires in the state. If not for the proximity to a major metropolitan airport and several natural gas wells, the money would’ve been spent elsewhere.

There’s the Burning Mountain, or Brennender Berg, between Dudweiler and Sulzbach-Neuweiler in Germany, where another coal-sustained fire has burned for more than 300 years. Local history claims the fire started in 1688 when a shepherd was trying to burn a tree stump but the fire from the roots touched off the underground blaze. This area isn’t as dangerous as others because the fire has died down a bit, but it’s still not the safest place.

It's Believed to Have Been Burning for Hundreds of Years

Credits: Coal, sulphure and oil are key ingredients in Canada's Smoking Hills fire. Photo: Ansgar Walk

Then there are the Smoking Hills of Canada, near the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories. Separated from the nearest town by 105 kilometers (65 miles), the Smoking Hills are mostly made of brown coal, sulphur and oil shales, a combustible combination if ever there was one. The hills can spontaneously combust in small areas and it’s believed the lignite has been burning for hundreds of years.

This One Has Been Burning for up to 15,000 Years

Credits: Australia's Burning Mountain. Photo: Australiantraveller.com

There’s also the Burning Mountain in Australia, 224 kilometers (139 miles) north of Sydney and part of the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve. Here, once again, experts believe the first was caused by a lightning strike or spontaneous combustion, and with a coal seam measuring two meters thick and 20-30 meters (66-98 feet) below the surface, it’s possible the Burning Mountain has been doing so for up to 15,000 years. In the 19th century, the smoldering mountain gave off such smoke that explorers thought it was a volcano.  

Even Walking in Shoes Is Near Impossible

Credits: Photo: TripodStories

In early 2017, the Indian district of Jharia had an explosion, believed to have been triggered by one of the country’s largest coal reserves. The fire there has been going strong for more than a century, making those who live nearby say it feels like living on an active volcano. “The ground is so hot at places that walking even in shoes is near impossible,” Mohammad Nasim Ansari of a nearby village said. “Almost everyone here is ill. Authorities ask the villagers to leave their homes and go. But most people fear loss of livelihood and hence continue to stay.”

Coal remains a major power source in India and Pakistan, along with the iron and steel genres. Some 65% of India’s power supply comes from coal and, since coal miners were sure things wouldn’t get out of hand, they increased coal production to keep up with higher demand.

In Jharia, the first fire is believed to have started in 1916, possibly by a lightning strike. In some locations around the abandoned town, the fire can and does burn at a temperature around 700 degrees Celsius (1292 degrees Fahrenheit).

Some 20 years ago, an improperly closed mine collapsed, opening up the coal seam and destroying 250 homes in two hours. Fighting the blaze destroyed an estimated 41 million tons of coal, an amount that would be worth billions.

Fires continue to spread across China, a nation that gets 75% of its energy from coal. Some 20 million to 200 million tons are coal are burned each spring, releasing an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to 1% of the total carbon emission from fossil fuels on earth.

Little Has Been Done to Stop the Fires

Credits: For these fires, most people have raised the surrender flag. Photo: Kelly Michals / Flickr

What’s really bizarre is how little has been done to stop or contain the fires. Look at Centralia, burning for more than 50 years with no end in sight and no ongoing efforts to save the town.

The same is true in China and India, where there are just too many fires to pick and choose which ones to fight and which ones to allow burning in perpetuity. In Indonesia, fields are being cleared by the use of coal fire to open up agricultural space, a practice that has started 3,000 coal fires since 1982.

So the next time you want to complain about your hometown, of the place where you’ve made your home, just remember: you could be living in an abandoned ghost town knowing the ground beneath your feet could shift and fall away at any moment, exposing a seemingly infinite fire of coal and sending you into hell.