Earth is burning in Centralia, USA

If you are driving on Route 61 from Ashland to Aristes in Pennsylvania you’ll be branched onto a short detour. It is not immediately clear to travelers what the detour is circumventing; however few passers-by pay it any attention, a detour is nothing unusual. But if you ignore the detour and follow the original route 61 highway, you’ll soon encounter an unexplained road closure. Beyond it lays a patch of land with overgrown streets, smoke coming out of the earth, and various warning signs. These are the remains of the mining town Centralia.

warning sign
Centralia warning sign (Photo by pquijal)

Centralia, Pennsylvania was never a large community, but it was once a lively and industrial place. At its peak in 1960 the coal mining town was home to 2,761 people, but today almost everybody is gone and no home advisor would ever suggest moving there. However, a home advisor, government buyout and toxic gas seeping from the ground isn't enough to get some stubborn residents to move. As of October 2013, there are still 7 residents remaining in the town. Of course, even if a home advisor tried to suggest you move to Centralia, you'd be out of luck as all of the buildings have been condemned and the land has been owned by the state since 1992. The series of events which led to the community’s demise began about forty-eight years ago.

What happened in Centralia?

In May of 1962 the Centralia Borough Council hired five volunteer fire fighters to clean up the town land fill, something they had done every year right before Memorial Day. The landfill was located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. In the previous years the landfill was in a different location and this time, there was an exposed vein of anthracite coal at the scene. The material was rapidly ignited by the trash fire, prompting a quick effort to put it out. The flames were successfully extinguished, but unbeknownst to the fire fighters, the coal continued to burn underground. Over the following weeks it rapidly expanded to the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town.

Centralia cemetery
Centralia cemetery, right next to the landfill where the fire started (Photo by Cricket)

Soon the Environmental Department began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine the extent and temperature of the fire. This wasn’t a very good idea. After some time the workers realized they provided the fire with a natural draft by drilling these boreholes, expanding and feeding the combustion. Several residents living in the affected area complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, but highly toxic. It causes a tired feeling, and can be lethal when you inhale large amounts of it.

Seven years after the fire was started, another effort was made to contain the fire using clay seals to block the air supply to the fire, but the attempt was met with failure. In the 1970s, people began to realize how dangerous the area became. A gas station owner noticed that the gasoline he delivered seemed hot, so he then lowered a thermometer down on a string and when he pulled it back out, he found the temperature of the gasoline inside the holding tank was a troubling 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82°C)!

Several other attempts were made to extinguish or contain the underground fire over the next years, but all of them were unsuccessful.

wasteland
Wasteland around the town (Photo by Raj Mahtaj)

Ghost town

After burning beneath the surface for almost twenty years, the fire drew national media attention when the ground crumbled beneath the feet of a twelve-year-old boy in 1981. The sinkhole, about four feet (1,2m) wide and 150 feet (50m) deep, would have killed the boy had his cousin had not been there to help pull him to safety.

At that point, about seven million dollars had been spent in the firefighting effort. Experts determined that the only option remaining to effectively battle the fire would be a massive trenching operation, excavating every bit of coal out of the mine at the cost of about $660 million. Left with such limited options, the state of Pennsylvania basically condemned the entire town, and spent $42 million in government funds relocating most of its residents.

Centralia today

The fire still burns today beneath about four hundred acres of surface land, and it’s still growing. There is enough coal in the mine to feed the fire for up to two hundred and fifty years. Most of the unoccupied homes and buildings have been razed, and large portions of the town are being reclaimed by nature, leaving meadows crisscrossed with overgrown asphalt roads and the occasional steaming or smoking hillside.

downtown centralia
Downtown centralia (Photo by pquijal)

Some of the areas are filled with new growth, while others are fields of fallen down dead trees. In the winter months you can see the steam rising up from the ground. There are low round metal steam vents sticking out of the ground south of the borough, and several signs warning of the underground fire, carbon monoxide and unstable ground. In some places the ground down beneath is too hot for almost anything to grow. It's mostly brown and there are fallen down, charred, dead trees everywhere.

wasteland
Wasteland near Centralia

One of the most interesting parts of Centralia is the abandoned stretch of highway 61. Informally known as "Graffiti Highway" this section was cut off from the rest of the highway because a large series of cracks formed in the center of the left lane from the underground coal fire. It is now used for dirt-biking and graffiti.

route 61
Original part of Route 61