On land, we have come to fear violent wildfires that can spread at speeds of up to 14 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path.
However, the oldest fires are burning underground, leaving slow but steady destruction in their wake. A coal seam fire has been festering underneath Centralia, Pennsylvania since 1962 and is expected to continue for another 250 years.
Our Fire in History feature explores how the Centralia mine fire turned a mining borough into a ghost town.
Incorporated in 1862 on 155 acres, the Centralia Borough was a multisite mining complex for anthracite coal. Alexander Rae, a mining engineer, founded the town and designed the layout that included the Locust Run Mine, Coal Ridge Mine, Hazeldell Colliery Mine, and Centralia Mine.
The coal mining industry struggled to persevere through the Wall Street Crash of 1929. At this time, bootleg mining became popular. The bootleg methods of "pillar- robbing," extracting coal from structural coal pillars, led to many collapsed mine sites.
Most of the mining companies shut down in the 1960s. By this time, the Borough was home to approximately 1,200 residents.
With the closure of the large, underground mines, bootleggers turned to shallow strip mines for coal. In 1962, in an effort to combat illegal dumping, the city established a landfill that sat on an abandoned strip mine pit that was 300-feet wide, 75-feet long, and 50-feet deep.
Unfortunately, these mines were notorious hosts for destructive fires. Because of this, George Segaritus, the regional landfill inspector, required holes in the walls and floors to be filled with non-combustible materials. Any mine hole left unfilled would have disastrous consequences, as the town would soon discover first-hand.
On May 7, 1962, the Centralia Council met to discuss the impending Memorial Day celebration and the cleanup of the town landfill.
Experts are still debating the exact cause of the fire, but they all agree on three things: it was unexpected, rapid, and preventable.
What we do know is that during preparation for Memorial Day, Borough personnel ignited a fire to burn waste at the dump on May 27th. Five volunteer firefighters were hired to oversee it. When the burn had ended, the team doused the flames with water.
Flames were spotted again on May 29th. The team took to it with hoses once more. One week later, on June 4th, flames resurfaced. The flames were doused for the third time.
The Centralia Fire Company bulldozed the garbage to shift piles around in search of concealed fire beneath the layers. A few days later, they made the horrible discovery: a 15-foot hole that had previously been hidden under garbage was never filled with noncombustible material.
Experts believe it was this hole that provided the pathway for the flames into the underground mine tunnels.
On July 2nd, Monsignor William J. Burke noticed a foul smell in the church that was emanating from the smoldering trash and coal. Despite his complaints, the city council continued to allow others to dump garbage into the pit.
Eventually, a member of the council contacted Clarence “Mooch” Kashner, president of the Independent Miners, Breakermen, and Truckers Union, to inspect the smell. Together with DMMI engineer Gordon Smith and mine inspector Art Joyce, they tested the pit and detected smoke and carbon monoxide levels in line with a coal-seam fire.
Coal-seam fires are easily fueled by oxygen and release toxic gases above ground as they burn. It doesn’t take much for them to reach a point of no return. David DeKok (author of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire) describes the fire as, “a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Lethal clouds of carbon dioxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.”
By August 9, 1962, these carbon monoxide levels were declared lethal, and the city closed the mines.
The Lehigh Valley Coal Company (LVCC) received formal notice of the fire with a request for assistance. The city deliberately omitted the cause of the fire to guarantee support. The LVCC and the Susquehanna Coal Company held a meeting where Deputy Secretary of Mines, James Shober Sr., stated his expectations for the state to finance the cost of digging out the fire.
There would be two excavation attempts.
On August 22, Bridy Inc. began excavating on an estimated $20,000 contract. They started digging at the expected location of the fire but ran into problems almost immediately. As soon as equipment exposed the mine chambers to oxygen, it rushed in and fueled the fire. Thus, as they excavated, the fire spread even faster.
On October 29th of that year, the project ran out of money, 58,850 cubic yards later.
The second excavation attempt began on November 1st. This time, water would be mixed with crushed rock to curb the spread of the fire. Uncharacteristically cold weather froze the water pipes. Funding ran out on March 15, 1963 after spending $42,420.
The city scrapped a third excavation plan, and by April 11, 1963 the mine fire had spread 700 feet from its origin.
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Toxic carbon monoxide levels and near deaths caused by sinkholes made the surrounding area virtually unlivable. In 1984, the government granted $42 million for relocation.
The Borough continued to be phased out. In 1992, Bob Casey, Pennsylvania governor, declared eminent domain of and condemned all properties. All but seven residents were formally evicted in 2009.
In 2002, the U.S Postal Service revoked Centralia’s zip code.
What was once a busy mining town of 1,400 citizens had dwindled to a population of 10 by 2017. Today, Centralia only serves as a tourist attraction and an eerie reminder of what began at that landfill in 1962.
As for the Centralia mine fire, it extended beneath the neighboring town of Byrnesville causing it to become abandoned and leveled. The fire is currently thriving at depths of up to 300 feet over an 8-mile stretch of 3,700 acres with no end in sight.