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A town on fire

Section of Route 61 or graffiti highway, nicknamed such because it’s a highway and there’s a lot of graffiti. Sadly a few years ago they covered it with dirt because a lot of the graffiti was obscene.

My brain works in mysterious ways, but did you know there’s a town that’s burning and will probably be burning for another (roughly) few hundred years? Not a town exactly, but it’s yet another case of truth being stranger than fiction. If you’re not familiar with the story, or just like learning more when you can, let me introduce you to the town of Centralia.

If you’re remotely familiar with the video game Silent Hill (or somewhat popular movies, which I thought were fun, but apparently I’m an outlier), the concept for the game came from Centralia, Pennsylvania. The story behind what happened is just about as scary as anything in this world, but as usual involves greed, ruining the environment, and garbage. To keep things simple let’s start at the beginning, way back when Centralia, which is now all, but a ghost town, was thriving.

Centralia has a long history, starting in 1749 when it was “purchased” from the indigenous people for not a lot, as usual with these sorts of things. The land changed hands a few times, but was mostly ignored because it was just land so the rather large coal deposits were overlooked, so large in fact they are probably the largest in the world or close to it.

It has been estimated that there was approximately 25 million tons of coal before mining first began in Centralia Borough. The coal deposits finally were given some attention around 1842 when a coal and iron company made the purchase (boo). Shortly after in 1856 the mining operations began, following a second mining operation in 1865.

Mining continued until the 1960’s when most of the companies shut down, so bootleg mining took over up until the early 1980’s with strip and open-pit mining supposedly still going on, but I’m not sure I trust that information and I have no primary source to back that claim up. With the background (mostly) covered, we can talk about the strange part, the fire.

There are a lot of theories on what started the fire and not a lot of concrete answers, but the prevailing theory is that it was started after an attempt to clean up the town landfill. So between the strip mining and the trash, the town council thought, “what the hell, let’s just burn it.” The trash that is, so they hired a group of volunteers to go in and clean up the landfill, which surprise, surprise was located in an abandoned strip-mine pit.

On May 27, 1962, the firefighters set the dump on fire and let it burn. This wasn’t the first time, but it was certainly the last. Unlike previous times, the fire was not fully extinguished and the story goes something like this, thanks to an unseals opening in the pit the fire entered the vast labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath the town. It raged in secret, but raged it did and due to the depths and size of the mine, there would be no stopping it.

There are other theories about what started the fire, but that’s my favorite because it’s probably the dumbest. So the fire (probably) started in 1962 where it went on like a ticking time bomb because when you burn things you create heat and a whole lot of gas, so things expand, crack, etc. In 1979 locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner checked the fuel level in his underground tanks to find the dipstick seemed to be hot. When he used a thermometer he found the tank was sitting at a blistering 172 degrees Fahrenheit (~78 C).

As we tend to do with these sort of things, the people politely ignored it and hoped it would go away. That is until 1981 when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole that was roughly 4 feet wide (~1.25 m) and 150 feet (46 m) deep! That is a huge sinkhole and it opened incredibly suddenly from the reports. His cousin pulled him out of the hole and probably saved his life, but the steam coming out of the hole had lethal levels of carbon monoxide (from the fires burning for roughly a few decades at this point).

Once again because we are dumb, like that whole controversy about not spreading a deadly disease in a pandemic, the people were divided on if this was a real problem or not. In 1983, or roughly 40 years ago, congress allocated over $42 million to relocate everyone in the town, because it turns out the fire wasn’t just going to politely go away, which the townspeople thought was rude, or so I assume.

Even after all of that… In 1992 the then governor of Pennsylvania invoked eminent domain to kick out the rest of the people, condemn the buildings, and you know generally get people the hell away from the giant hell fire pit. The people who remained lost the last legal efforts shortly after and in 2002 the post office had to stop delivering mail to the entire zip code!

According to the latest census, the population of Centralia is still at five, so better than the thousand or so in the 1980’s, but not quite zero. After further legal action in around 2012, the people who somehow still live there now have the right to remain for the rest of their lives, arguing that the air quality is on par with other surrounding areas. A scary thought if there ever was one, but okay. So if this post makes you decide you want to visit, for whatever reason, be respectful because there are definitely people living in the still standing homes.

Make no mistake though, the fire is burning to this day and there are steam vents throughout the borough giving off gases from the fire. Coupled with unstable ground (i.e. sinkholes), the dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, and the literally hot ground, we can estimate very roughly the fires size, but there’s nothing that can be done to extinguish the blaze.

As for how long this fire will continue, well it’s been burning for roughly 50 years and depending on who you ask there’s anywhere from another 100 years to 250 years worth of coal left to burn off before the fire is reduced enough that it can be considered extinguished from the surface perspective (as in probably still burning, but it would be so small as to not be measurable from the surface).

To this day agencies monitor the area and drill boreholes to monitor the fire, in fact there have been over 2,000 boreholes drilled since 1966 and that does not include the pipes that were used to direct venting of the mine fire gases away from residential areas.

Since most of the articles on the internet talking about this cite each other for the information they provide or other secondary news sources, I’m opting to cite a primary source. The Pennsylvania department of environmental protection to be exact. Because horror stories based on facts are awesome and some of my favorite, but this isn’t a horror story in the fictionalized sense. This is something very real, involving very real people ,and in my opinion, is yet another example of why we need to care for the environment better.

I don’t like to exaggerate or make claims that I cannot support so you’ll find all the hard information in this post here. As a friendly reminder, don’t burn trash near a coal mine. This isn’t the first fire of its kind, nor was it the last, but it was certainly the largest… for now.

Another shot of graffiti highway showing the steam coming off the ground from the fire underneath.

2 responses

  1. What a waste! Of course it’s vomiting carbon back into the atmosphere and not even doing anything useful.

    Parts of this made me laugh. Once I might have been surprised at the depths of human foolishness, but yeah, um, the pandemic.

    Government: “The ground below you is dissolving in fire. The surface may crack, collapse, or start leaking poison into your basement any moment. Please leave.”
    Residents: “How dare you insist that I move, I’m going to sue!”

    I used to think that the one redeeming thing about issues such as pandemic threats, climate change, etc. was “This whole argument is about whether certain predictions of fact are correct – so somebody will be proven wrong if we wait long enough. It might be too late to make the important decisions by then, but at least we’ll know!” The past two years have stripped even that consolation away. When a prediction comes true, the people who doubted the prediction just proceed to deny that it ever came true. Or if they’re forced to admit it, they grab on to some other falsehood that’s equally problematic. There’s no point at which clarity emerges and nobody can lie anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 14, 2022 at 8:42 pm

    • Yeah it is a huge waste, thankfully all (or hopefully most) of the particulate contamination remains underground, but the gas is for sure dumping all that greenhouse gas into the environment for the next lifetime or two.

      I think the wildest part of this story isn’t that the people left, it’s that it was most likely started by setting garbage on fire… inside the damned coal mine. Like who the hell thought that was a good idea?!

      I agree that the pandemic has really driven the point home that people will ignore reality, even as they are on their deathbeds. I mean how many times have we heard antivaxxers say, “if it kills me, then it was real,” then they end up dying?

      On the brightside at least we won’t be the ones with the front row seats to the collapse, at least I hope it doesn’t happen that fast. Small consolations in the apocalyptic times I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      March 15, 2022 at 4:32 pm

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