Centralia, Pennsylvania: Hell on earth!

Centralia is a town located in the heart of the anthracite mining region of Pennsylvania. In May 1962, a fire in a trash dump accidentally ignited the coal mine under the town. Attempts to put out the fire over the years have been unsuccessful, and the population of 1,100 residents has since dwindled to 21.

On the south side of Centralia is a section of four-lane divided highway which was closed in the '80s. There is a huge crack in the southbound lanes, with smoke billowing out of it from the underground mine fire, which continues to burn even today.

Centralia is not the longest burning fire but is interesting nonetheless. The town was immortalized in the movie Made in U.S.A., which features footage of the town when it was being abandoned in the 1980s.

Update: According to the 2000 Census, there are 16 housing units in Centralia, only 10 of which are still occupied.

For 40 years a fire has been burning in Pennsylvania. Forty years. It has virtually destroyed the small community of Centralia. There is no end in sight—yet, surprisingly, not one person has died because of it.


Settled in the mid 19th century by immigrants (at that time, primarily Irish), like so many small towns of the Appalachian region, Centralia was based on coal. Pennsylvania has, even today, some of the richest sources of anthracite coal—the highest grade of coal—in the world. During the 1860s, a group known as the Molly Maguires (mainly Irish) decided that mining practices and ownership's treatment of labor had gone too far and took matters into their own hands in a series of actions that some considered heroic and some terrorism. Supposedly—as the legend goes—the people of Centralia sympathized with the group, causing a local priest to condemn them, saying that "a day would come when only St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would remain standing in Centralia and that the little mining town, founded on a bed of coal, would burn forever." Only a legend, but intriguing all the same with respect to what later occurred.

Resting over 14 or 15 seams of coal, a huge vein under the town (estimated at about 30 feet thick and more than 40 million tons) Centralia has been a one industry town from the beginning. As is often the case with small mining communities, the market cycles through "boom and bust" periods making a stable population unlikely. There were about 1,300 people living there in 1870, peaking around 2,700 near 1890, then dropping back to almost 2,000 by 1900.

Coal mining declined throughout the first half of the 20th century and by 1960, there was very little mining going on in the area of Centralia. The population had finally stabilized (around 1,400) and was largely made up of older people who had lived there their whole lives. Since it had been built and sustained by the mining industry, it had little political power and poor economy. Basically, a small almost forgotten town that would either gradually disappear or remain in its then current state seemingly indefinitely like many small rural towns.

In many ways, this all changed in 1962.

Starting a fire

It is known about where the fire began—in an abandoned strip mining pit that had been used for illegal dumping—and approximately when—May (probably mid month)—but the exact cause is often debated or considered unknown. A journalist from a nearby town, David DeKok, covered the fire and other Centralia issues for years. He wrote a book that is considered the best available information on the fire. He suggests how it happened.

That year (1962), the town decided that it needed a new landfill. Since the abandoned strip mine had already been used for dumping, it was offered as a replacement. Before that could take place, an inspector from the state had to come out. They were given a permit after a few holes were filled with nonflammable material—as a precaution against fire (it would serve to keep any fire from getting to the coal below). A meeting was held on 7 May during which it was decided to clean up the dump by Memorial Day (30 May). (Memorial Day ceremonies were to take place at the nearby cemetery and an open landfill would be undesirable for the gatherers.)

It seems that a common method of "cleaning up" a landfill in those days was setting fires in them (it was also illegal which could explain why such a plan is absent from the record). The fire was hosed out but there were flare-ups that continued to occur. After several days, firefighters investigated and found a large hole that had not been plugged with material (it had been hidden under the previously illegally dumped garbage).

There was a fire in Centralia.

It burns, it burns

The 1960s
The history of dealing with the fire is one of increasing cost, stalled or half-done attempts, missed opportunities, and failure. A lot of "what ifs" occur. If only they had acted more quickly at some points or spent the money or planned better. But they didn't and the fire still burns.

It wasn't even reported until July. The first attempt was an offer by a mining engineer to dig it out with a backhoe for $175. Money had to go through proper channels before he could do anything. And nothing was done. Meanwhile, some nearby mines were closed down to protect workers from poisonous gas (with the understanding that it would only be until money was gotten to cover the project). Another early attempt involved a strip miner who said he'd dig it out if he was allowed to keep enough coal to make it worth his while (in other words: no charge). But the fire was now a state problem and any operations had to be open for bids. More delays and the fire continued to spread underground.

As can be seen with the two early attempts, digging out the burning material is a common and usually effective means to stop a coal fire. Of course, the longer one allows the fire to burn, the bigger and more spread out the fire becomes, and more material is needed to be excavated. This also means more money is needed to work the project. And one of the ways the town of Centralia was failed by the state and federal government is that projects were set up around the money that was allotted for the project rather than the amount that was needed to actually follow through and complete it.

Trenches are often dug as a barrier to the spread of a fire but by the time trenches were begun to be dug, the fire had already passed that barrier. All the work (and money) put into that was worthless. And indicative of the way the fire was handled. When planning excavations, holes should be drilled to determine the spread of the fire so that digging and trenches can be effectively placed. This did not happen. It was felt it would be an unnecessary delay (as opposed to all the others then and since) and the contractors guessed where to dig based on smoke coming from the ground.

Further problems were that it was run not like a concentrated effort to kill a mine fire but as a regular job: only one eight hour shift a day with holidays off. This was not the way to tackle a mine fire. They had even come close to finishing around Labor Day. Then took a five day weekend for the holiday. About 50,000 cubic yards of material were removed but the fire continued.

Since it was a state problem, the town council let them handle it—the fire was underground and "out of sight, out of mind." The state seemed to be in little hurry, itself, waiting until 1967 for another attempt to extinguish the fire. By then mining rights had changed owner and the new one wanted to strip mine out all the good coal before the fire got to it. This would eliminate fuel for the fire and end it. He offered to do under supervision of the US Bureau of Mines and it would also be nearly free (to the town and the state)—estimated costs had risen to a few million dollars. People in Washington deemed the project unfeasible. Once again the fire was allowed to burn.

Also that year, holes were drilled to determine the extent of the fire (finally). It was quite a bit larger than previously thought and the cost was set at $4.5 million. The idea of digging trenches was abandoned and a new plan of action chosen. Fly ash is the inorganic residue left after coal is burned. It was a fairly effective means of stopping fires in bituminous coal mines because they tend to have a lower "pitch" (about 10°). Veins of anthracite usually to have a greater one (Centralia's was 35°) and the fly ash tends to slide down the shaft, making the attempt unsuccessful.

The people of Centralia were sold on the idea as about the best way to deal with the situation, when in fact, excavation was still the best means of stopping the blaze. There are stories that county officials felt the cost/benefit analysis made digging trenches undesirable—work expected to cost around $5 million to save homes and property assessed around $500,000. Therefore, digging was not an option and the less effective means put into action. The result should be unsurprising.

In addition to the fly ash barrier, a small trench was dug in 1969 and actually came close (again) to getting things under control. Then digging was halted because additional state and federal money was denied (the money, however, was later shown to have been available, only withheld). 1969 was also important in the history of the fire, as that was when the first evacuations took place. There were concerns about carbon monoxide (CO) seeping into homes through the basement with the danger inherent. Three families were moved from their homes and the houses destroyed.

The second decade
By 1972, there were signs that the fire might have passed the fly ash barrier (it later turned out to be incorrect) and the many holes drilled around the town were showing evidence of CO building up underground to dangerous levels. Regardless, very little was done about the continuing problem.

1977 was another year that again demonstrates the way things were handled. The situation was being controlled by a number of bureaucratic entities who all argued, passed along the problems, and tied up and delayed action. That year, another small trench was dug, the story being that the fly ash barrier was not good enough (apparently not). It turned out that the Bureau of Mines privately admitted that the action was undertaken because of public demand rather than necessity—in fact, there were plans to claim that the fly ash barrier had been breached by the fire despite the fact that there was no evidence it had happened through 1978.

The whole situation was becoming more difficult to pretend it was inconsequential or invisible. Around that time, temperatures reaching as high as 746° were found in one woman's backyard behind her swimming pool. Garden vegetables were burning in the soil. Residents claimed that basements were so warm they didn't need to use their hot water heaters to warm bath water. Also at that time Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Services (DER) began placing CO detectors in homes. They turned out to be less than effective and annoying when they did work. Some residents bought canaries to do their own monitoring.

DER representatives were supposed to come out to the homes when the alarms sounded to assess the danger. During "office hours" residents were to call them. Of the three or four people on the list to respond to the calls, only one really made the effort to come out, the others tended to be difficult to reach. This resulted in so much overtime for the one employee that he was told to stop responding. The people of Centralia were never actually informed as to what CO levels constituted danger. No health study was done.

In 1979, the heat had grown enough that the tanks from the gas station had to be emptied. Gases were found at a nearby school. This was omitted from a contemporary report on the state of things (the charge being that they were concerned the news would create strong demand that something be immediately done). The network of old mine shafts and, very probably, the thousands of holes bored into the ground (for monitoring purposes), as well as openings and cracks created by the fire, continued to provide the oxygen needed to fuel the coal fire.

Into the 1980s
In August of 1980, the Bureau of Mines announced that no further action was to be taken and the fire left alone. According to them, the best course was to "do nothing and let the fire burn itself out" (sai.cup.edu).

A group of state and local representatives were gathered for a visit to Centralia in 1981 for a tour of the town. On that same day, a twelve year child fell through a hole that opened up in his grandmother's backyard. It was a subsidence (the ground "settled" or "sank" over an underground cavity) created as a result of the fire. Fortunately he was able to grab some tree roots and call to his cousin who helped pull him free—all while gases and smoke emitted from the hole and he was subjected to temperatures of over 135°. Grandma told him to inform the men who were visiting.

They examined an opening and had the emissions tested, finding extremely high readings of CO—enough to kill someone within minutes. One of the representatives tried calling the governor to ask a state of emergency be declared. He refused and put off a further meeting with the representative by a day in order to celebrate Presidents' Day. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't a sufficient risk for such a small town. Centralia wasn't economically or politically important enough for state or federal interest to be aroused to the point of actually taking effective action.

The incident did gain the fire widespread attention, including national television networks, wire services, and some international papers. This made it more difficult to pretend the small town wasn't there or that the fire was no one's problem. There was an admission that it posed a "potential danger" (as opposed to actual danger, apparently) but there was a continued refusal to declare it a disaster area or call for a state of emergency. The governor and the US Secretary of the Interior (James Watt) were uninterested in helping by releasing the necessary funds to stop the fire. Any efforts regarding the people or the fire were chosen out of necessity (as in something had to be done to quiet the populace and appear to be making progress) and dependent on cost—the cheapest plan was the one to go with.

Shortly after, another incident took place. Some neighbors had been watching television and fallen asleep due to building levels of CO in the house (which, in turn decreased oxygen levels). One man happened to fall out of bed, waking his wife, who called the neighbors and an ambulance. There is no question that had he not fallen, all of them would have died. When gas levels were checked the following day, the oxygen had dropped even more—this after the house had been opened up and the windows left open for three hours.

The governor finally did "something" for the people. Out of his clear concern for their welfare and surely nothing else, a buyout program was established for relocation of Centralia citizens who were closest to the fire. Despite promises of market value (which undoubtedly was already low), an additional 20% was taken off for proximity to the fire. Most refused to consider leaving, anyway, feeling that the fire could be stopped and was not an immediate danger outside of the CO problem. Already upset over years (the fire was going into its twentieth year) or foot dragging, inattention, and failed lackluster attempts to put out the fire that was threatening not only the town, but now their lives to some extent, the people were outraged. It was further proof to them that the government didn't care.

Jokes were made about asking the Soviet Union for aid and protesters marched with signs saying "Why Put Out the People, Put Out the Fire" and "Watt is the Problem in Centralia." As if in response, the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Health claimed that "there's no health problem in Centralia" and "no Centralia home has ever had a dangerous level of gases." As another of the signs has said: "Ask Not What Your Government Can Do For You—It Doesn't Give a Damn."

In 1982, borehole temperatures within the borough limits had reached 500°, putting the fire directly under the town. It was also determined that it was underneath State Route 61—all of which described a situation in Centralia that the governor and other officials had been denying existed. The story had gotten out when the mining engineer who had taken the time to (honestly) answer questions about his findings to the local paper (the Harrisburg paper as well as the Associated Press also picked up the story). Being that it was during an election campaign, this made the governor look bad and he demanded the engineer be fired. He was not but a gag order was placed on him preventing further "leaks."

In January of the following year, temperatures under the road were up to 770° and the road, itself, was only about six feet away from the cavity beneath. Soon a crack opened in the surface but the governor refused to close it off, despite the obvious safety concerns. The crack widened and temperature rose higher to 853°. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation closed down the road at that point and it became clear that the fire was getting close to being immediately dangerous to the survival of the town (PennDOT made attempts to "stabilize" the road and reopened it a few months later; it was reclosed in 1993).

An independent study was done in 1983 that showed the fire to be much larger than thought and confirmed that it was directly under the town. It had been allowed to go on long enough that the cost was becoming unfeasible. A trench through town had been recommended at a cost $62 million (a similar plan had been proposed in 1963 that was would have cost only $277,000). An excavation of the fire—which would finally put a stop to it—was now estimated to run in the neighborhood of —660 million. A far cry from that initial offer of $175.

It was clear that the people were going to have to accept the buyout program. It was a voluntary program (the governor and others assumed everyone would want to leave) with a fund of $42 million from the federal government. There was no 20% off the appraisals but the people were only getting between $22,000 and $35,000—well below what would be needed to purchase another house, let alone help with relocation costs. Many houses were going for two or more times the amount they received. As one resident said, "I'm scared. Hey, we're giving up our home, going back into debt. We hadn't had debts since 1964. So I can imagine how the elderly must feel."

The first house was knocked down in December 1984. By the time the relocation program was supposed to end—the end of 1986—there were only 50 households remaining (about 100 people): residents who refused to be put out of their homes and bought off for a pittance. On the other hand, the trench could not be dug while people still lived there (if it was seriously being considered at all). But then, once people sold out, they certainly were not going to be able to move back if the fire was put out. They simply could not afford to do so had the town been "saved" and people allowed to return. The property was now owned by the government. About 500 buildings were demolished.

Another ten years
Another governor was in office and near the end of his second term. It was 1991 and there were still people refusing to give up their Centralia homes. Figuring that when the expected legal challenge hit, he would already be out of office, the governor turned the voluntary relocation program into a matter of eminent domain. Residents were sent eviction notices advising (not demanding) them to leave. The challenge came and progressed through the Pennsylvania court system until the State Supreme Court chose not to hear it. It then was taken to the US Supreme Court. Again a refusal, leaving the order intact over any remaining properties in the Borough of Centralia.

That year, the state declared a moratorium on any additional sewer connections for Centralia.

By then what remained were about 30 houses, a municipal building and post office, a few businesses, and a church or two. One of the churches was the St. Ignatius of legend. In 1997, that too, was torn down. By 1998, there was about $5 million left of the original $42 million fund. At that time about 800 properties had been "acquired" by the government, though a number of people still remained. While eminent domain was in force, the government seemed unwilling (through the time of this writing) to actually enforce it and make the last stand citizens leave their homes.

A new century, the same fire
By 2001, the numbers had dwindled to about twenty (same number of buildings), including (then) 84 year old Mayor Lamar Mervine. Though essentially squatters, the people refused to leave, many feeling it to only be a matter of time before the fire burns itself out and seeing no immediate danger. Despite gas emissions and extreme temperatures in some areas, the people and their homes seemed to be safe.

Not only a matter of pride and stubbornness to leave the place they have called home most or all of their lives, the belief is that part of the pressure to get the people to go rests in the fact that the town retains the mineral rights to the area. Once everyone is bought out, they would be in the possession of the government. And given the lack of response to actually stopping the fire over the decades, this belief has been strengthened.

Interestingly, they claim that the state actually used $190,000 of the relocation money to buy and plant wildflowers and trees, despite the it being a "dying town." The citizens believe that the mineral rights explain these actions. Even though the fire has lasted over 40 years, there is still a great deal of anthracite remaining in the area. Worth a great deal of money.

For the 40th anniversary of the start of the fire, there were 15 residents remaining. People who "wouldn't have gone for a million dollars" (seattletimes.nwsource.com). It's not like the town looks like the wastelands of Hell. There are no towers of flame leaping up from pits, no natural chimneys belching plumes of smoke.

There is some smoke that issues from cracks and fissures. Steam with the smell of sulfur (okay: brimstone). The vegetation around the openings that also serve to feed the fire with oxygen is dead. Nearby rocks are warm or hot to the touch—snow rarely lasts long, no matter how much the town gets. And there is the danger of CO buildup. Much of this does not affect the homes and the remaining people. They are waiting it out. Either the fire will eventually end or they will be finally removed (something the government remains hesitant to do—probably to avoid seeming to be bullying the people, residents believe) or they will die there. Another citizen died in January.

People from the state still come out periodically and check temperatures and emissions and monitor the fire. It affects at least 450 acres (surface), though it is estimated it could spread to over 3000.

As one resident said for an article written in 2001, "Nothing will burn forever." Centralia has been burning for 40 years. And continues.

Note: The current "Homeland Security Advisor," Tom Ridge was a two term governor in Pennsylvania between 1995 and 2001. According to his White House website bio, he was known for his "aggressive technology strategy helped fuel the state's advances in the priority areas of economic development, education, health and the environment" and "Pennsylvania's largest environmental investment ever, nearly $650 million." Just in case anyone from Centralia was wondering what he was doing while the city burned. (www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/ridgebio.html)

(Sources: www.pages.drexel.edu/undergrad/st954v92/Centralia/fire.html all quotes from here unless otherwise cited above, sai.cup.edu/caltimes/inside/mar01/2centralia.html, seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationwold/1344446816_burning02.html byline reads story was from The (Baltimore) Sun)

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