Fires in History: Centralia Mine Fire

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On Memorial Day 1962, Centralia, PA wanted to plan a fun event for the town, but a fateful mistake would result in the town becoming desolate.  As of 2013, the town only had 7 residents.  Here's the reason why.

The Beginning

On May 7, 1962, the town of Centralia, PA was looking forward to a Memorial Day celebration.  But first, the Centralia Town Council had to figure out what to do about the landfill.  It was overrun, and needed to be taken care of before throwing a town event.

The landfill was a 300-feet wide, 75-feet long, and 50-feet deep strip mine.  It was created to stop illegal dumping that was happening all over Centralia.  At the time the landfill was built, there were eight illegal dumping grounds around the town. 

Strip mines are known for catching fire easily, so it was required to have a special permit and regular inspections. The town decided to complete a deliberate burn to reduce the amount of trash in the landfill.  

During one of the regular inspections, George Segaritus, regional landfill inspector for the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries, found holes in the walls and floor of the strip mine and required them to be filled with non-combustible material.

This was 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 monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.
— David DeKok, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire

The Fire

On May 27, 1962, a fire was intentionally started to clean up the landfill.  Five members of the volunteer fire department were hired to supervise the controlled burn.  When the burn was complete, the firefighters doused the fire with water.

Soon after that, flames were seen again and doused again.

On June 4, another flare-up occurred, and a bulldozer was brought in to move garbage and open up any hot spots.  Not only did this reveal hot spots, but also a hole in the pit that was 15 feet wide.  This hole was feeding the fire and providing a path for the fire to reach the coal deep underground.  The fire snaked through the labyrinth of coal mines underground, unchecked.

Once the people of Centralia realized there was a fire it was too late, but that didn't stop them from trying to extinguish it.


Attempts to Extinguish the Fire

Attempt One:  Rejected

A member of the city council contacted Clarence "Mooch" Kashner, the President of the Independent Miners, Breakerman, and Truckers union to inspect the fire.  He called Gordon Smith who is an engineer with DMMI.  Smith offered to dig out the smoldering material using a steam shovel for $175.

Attempt Two:  Exploratory

A call was placed with a mine inspector named Art Joyce from Mount Carmel.  He brought gas detection equipment which found carbon monoxide was coming from the whisps of smoke indicating that the fire did, in fact, spread to the coal.

Next, a letter was sent to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company (LVCC) to let them know of the fire.  The city lied about the cause of the fire in an attempt to get LVCC to pay to extinguish it.  The city wrote a letter saying that a period of hot weather started the fire.

On August 6, LVCC and the Susquehanna Coal Company met to discuss the problem.  The Deputy Secretary of Mines James Shober Senior said that he expected the state to finance a $30,000 bill to dig out the fire.  

Attempt 3:  Rejected

At the meeting, an offer was made by Centralia Strip Mine operator Alonzo Sanchez to dig the fire out for free if he could claim coal that he recovered without paying royalties to Lehigh Valley Coal Company.  He also requested to do exploratory drilling to estimate the scope of the mine fire.

This plan was rejected because they did not want to delay the project with the exploratory drilling and they were concerned about the legal rights of providing coal as payment.

The carbon dioxide levels continued to be checked daily, and by August 9 the level was lethal.  The mines were closed.



Attempt 4:  Failure  

On August 22, Bridy, an excavation company, began an excavation project.  However, DMMI forbade exploratory drilling to determine the size of the fire.  At this point, they assumed it was small and only allowed Bridy to excavate based on DMMI engineer's plans.  

The location of the fire was guessed based on the steam and smoke coming from the landfill.

When the excavating began, oxygen would feed the fire and it would flare up.  This made the excavating ineffective.  The fire was growing faster than the excavation could manage.  

There were several problems with this project.  

  • The shovel was too small.
  • The excavators were only allowed to work single, 8-hour shifts on weekdays.  During Labor Day weekend, they were not allowed to work for five days.  Every day, the fire grew bigger.

Bridy was able to excavate 58,580 cubic yards before the funding ran out on October 29.


Attempt 5:  Failure

On November 1, K&H Excavating was granted the second excavation with a low bid of $28,400.  The city was expecting to pay $40,000, so they were happy about the price.  K&H Excavating planned to crush rock and mix it with water to pump into the mines.

The excavating was done 20 feet apart in the shape of a semi-circle along the edge of the landfill.  It was unusually cold in Centralia during this project.  Water lines froze that were supplying water to make the rock slurry.  Then, a blizzard shut down the machine that was grinding rock.

An additional problem was that the 10,000 cubic yards of flushing materials didn't seem to be enough to fill the mines.  It allowed for routes of escape.

By April 11, Centralia learned that the fire spread as steam began coming from holes 700 feet east of the original fire.

The total cost ended up being $42,420.

Attempt 6:  Rejected

On July 1, 1963, another attempt was planned to be made.  Option one was $277,490.  The plan was to entrench the fire and backfill it with incombustible material.  Option two cost $151,714 and was a smaller trench with an incomplete circle.  They would then complete the circle with a flush barrier.  Option three was $82,300.  It would be a total and concerted flushing. 

In the end, the project was abandoned, giving up on Centralia.


The Aftermath


The city council gave up on the town.  In 1984, Congress allocated $42 million to relocate the citizens of Centralia.  Many accepted the buy-outs and left the area.  A few families stayed, despite the risk to their health.

In 1992, Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties, condemning the buildings. 

In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's zip code.

In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell formally evicted all Centralia residents.  Some residents appealed this ruling, but they lost.  In July 2012, the residents who appealed eviction were ordered to leave.

On October 29, 2013, seven residents were granted the right to live out the remainder of their lives in Centralia.

The fire extended to Byrnesville, and that town was abandoned and leveled.

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