Centralia Mine Fire
No one knows exactly how it started, but a coal vein has been burning under the Pennsylvania mining town of Centralia since 1962. Some trace it back to careless trash incineration in a landfill next to an open pit mine, which ignited a coal vein. The fire crawled, insidiously, along coal-rich deposits far from the miner's pick, venting hot and poisonous gases up into town, through the basements of homes and businesses.
With dawning horror, residents came to realize that the fire was not going to be extinguished, or ever burn itself out -- at least not until all the interconnected coal veins in eastern Pennsylvania were spent in some epic, meatless barbecue. As the underground fire worked its way under rows of homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning became a daily concern.
The government eventually stepped in, and Centralia joined an elite club of communities, including Love Canal and Times Beach. Declared municipalis non grata, Centralia was slowly abandoned as houses were demolished or burned, and citizens relocated.
We first visited in the mid-1980s, when 80 percent of Centralia had already been abandoned. The hillsides were punctured with craggy vent pipes spewing noxious gases. Large, cracked holes and pits threatened the roads through town. Though there were no visible flames, you could feel the heat radiating from the latest breaches. It was said that snow never stuck here in places, because the ground was too warm....
Remaining residents had their hopes pinned on an ambitious plan to contain the blaze, the last in a series of elaborate schemes. We heard the details at the Centralia branch of the county fire department, the only new building built since the fire started (and one of the few that now remain standing). They hoped to dig a 500-foot deep trench completely across the hill which Centralia sprawled, holding back the fire and saving nearby Ashland (beloved by tourists for its mine tour and statue of Whistler's Mother). We imagined a future tourism windfall for Centralia itself, reborn as "Helltown USA," with bus tours guided by residents in red devil tights and horns.
To no one's surprise, the trench was never dug. Hwy 61 leading north from Ashland was closed -- officially barricaded -- then rerouted into town. But charred remains of Centralia still hang on, along with a handful of aging citizens. Signs warn of the noxious emissions in the area.
On a bench at the little crossroads park, an old timer provides the latest tally: "522 homes gone, people moved out, condemned and bought out by the government." He's been in Helltown for 65 years, and, all things considered, doesn't think the place is so bad. "The media played up the whole thing."
It's dusk, and we don't see any signs of the fire. Has it finally gone out?
"Nah," says the old timer, "Fire moved up that way." He points over our shoulders, and, sure enough, lazy smoke curls out among the trees and a couple of doomed two-story frame houses....
By 2000 the fire had moved into the cemetery, with smoke wafting up from around the gravestones. In 2002 the town had its zip code revoked. In 2004 the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection explicitly discouraged visitors to Centralia. "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." But they came anyway, particularly drawn to the bypassed section of Hwy 61, rent with fissures oozing smoke, renamed the "Highway of Death" by its fans.
The $42 million dollar government relocation program begun in 1984 finally ended in 2005, and in 2013 the seven remaining residents reached an agreement with the state allowing them to remain in Centralia until they died, at which point their properties would be condemned.
Mark your calendars for 2016, when relocated townspeople may return to unearth a time capsule, buried in 1966, for the town's 150th anniversary.
Note: Though the few remaining residents are cordial and friendly, Centralia is not an official tourist attraction. The gases are considered dangerous, so proceed at your own risk.