The continued tragedy we ignore in Centralia.

Pennsylvania is home to many beautiful sites. Did you know that it’s also home to a deadly, underground coal fire? This coal fire has been burning for well over fifty years. Centralia, Pennsylvania is the location of much inspiration and trepidation. Tread carefully, even while reading this story.

Imagine it is over a century ago, Centralia is bustling small town of coal miners and the families that resided there. It is a town meant for success. This small town withstood the “Great Depression” and remained in tact. The population even swelled as it was, at one point, the place to live. You didn’t even have to be a coal miner. 

Centralia isn’t without it’s pitfalls, violence knows no limits. Coal miners in the area were known to be violent. The same can be said in any location. The real tragedy is when in 1962, they decided the only way to rid the town of their trash by burning it. Keep in mind this is not a legal practice. Knowing this, the city council at the time ignored this fact. 

May 1962, they decided to make it a “memorial day” festivity as they systematically burned it at the landfill. This fact is still hotly debated as the cause is still not 100% known.

“This might seem like irrelevant, small-town history except for one thing,” wrote David Dekok in Fire Underground, his history of the fire: “Centralia Council’s method for cleaning up a dump was to set it on fire.” Though competing theories exist about how the fire was sparked, it’s thought that the Centralia dump fire sparked a much larger mine fire beneath the town. — cited from below link with more information.

They should have taken into consideration the network of the mine below the city. Once the spark ignited the coals below, it was impossible to extinguish. The network beneath the town is vast. What was their solution? Firstly, they poured water down the network of tunnels in an attempt to extinguish the blaze. They chose to ignore this for over twenty years until a twelve year old boy was nearly swallowed into a huge sink hole that developed. 

Smoke rising from a large crack in PA Highway 61 caused by the underground coal fire, 2010. (Credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Smoke from the fire below, swam to the surface. The temperature swelled to over 900 degrees. The town was overrun with carbon monoxide. This is not a same environment to reside, and this is dangerous to ignore. Their indiscretion was, unfortunately, too expensive and dangerous to fix. Sinkholes are still said to randomly develop in the area, to this day.

“By then, it was too late for Centralia. Rather than put out the fire, Congress decided to buy out its residents, paying them to move. Then, in 1992, Pennsylvania moved to kick the holdouts out for good. All of Centralia’s buildings were condemned; its ZIP code was eliminated. Seven residents remained via court order; they are forbidden from passing down their property or selling it.” — cited from below link with more information.

“And forget extinguishing the fire that has turned the town from a small mining center to a place infamous for its hidden blaze: As geologist Steve Jones told Smithsonian’s Kevin Krajick, “Putting it out is the impossible dream.””— cited from below link with more information.

In 1992 the town was condemned. No one should live or visit the area as it’s unclear how detrimental the experience would be. I’d say it’s far too dangerous, even for firefighters. There are thousands of coal fires underground as we speak, but this is said to have been started people. People like you and I, just trying to eliminate trash in a landfill without thinking about the consequences…

I find it incredibly unfortunate that many residence found this to be amusing. Even after 57 years, this coal fire is said to burn on for another century. The deadly gases and horrifying sink holes that still erupt with carbon monoxide will be apart of our reality. What are the consequences of this, even after almost 60 years? We are still trying to figure that out. 

“The Centralia fire now reaches as deep as 300 feet and covers some six square miles — that’s more than seven Disneyland’s. It’s advancing around 75 feet per year along four separate branches and could burn for another 250 years. All the residents of the town may be gone by then, but the coal that brought their ancestors to Pennsylvania in the first place will still be blazing.”

2 thoughts on “The continued tragedy we ignore in Centralia.

  1. When I was reading the article, I was feeling that I was reading a script from a horror movie. I hope in the future no one will ever try to do so. Thanks for writing about it!


    1. Thank you. It’s a tragic moment in history that could have been prevented and I feel like it gets swept under the rug.
      This should not be repeated and that’s the purpose of writing this. Thank you!
      If you ever have suggestions, please, don’t be shy!

      Liked by 1 person

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