America’s PA route 61 runs eighty one miles from Reading to Smamokin Dam. It passes through a small town called Ashland where the northbound traffic branches of onto a small detour. If you were to ignore the detour and head down the original route 61, there is an an abrupt road closure. Beyond it you will catch sight of residential houses with overgrown gardens, roads with deep, earthquake like gashes in its surface, ominous warning signs, and most alarmingly, acrid, swirling, sulphurous smoke emanating from the scorched earth. Touch the ground and you will recoil from the heat. An American flag flutters weakly in the wind; the lonely clunk of metal on the flagpole the only sound. Where are you? Centralia.
Once a thriving and prosperous industrial town of nearly 3000, the are now only five permanent residents. Why? Because Centralia is on fire, and has been since 1962.
In 1962, workers started a refuse fire in an abandoned mine pit which was used as the borough’s landfill. Although common practice to burn rubbish, the workers did not appreciate the fire was exposed to a vein of anthracite coal. The highly flammable mineral was unexpectedly ignited. The flames on the surface were successfully extinguished, but unbeknownst to the fire fighters, the coal continued to burn underground. Over the following weeks it rapidly migrated into the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town.
Soon the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine the extent and temperature of the fire. In retrospect, it was realized that the well-meaning workers may have unwittingly provided the fire with a natural draft by drilling these boreholes, feeding the coal’s combustion.
“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 (1986)
There have been many ideas postulated to put out the fire. All were expensive and with no guarantee of success. These included a massive trenching operation at the cost of about $660 million. Left with such limited options, the state of Pennsylvania condemned the entire town, and spent $42 million in government funds relocating most of its residents.
The fire still burns today beneath about four hundred acres of surface land, and it’s still growing. There is enough coal in the eight-mile vein to – depending on who you listen to – feed the fire for between one hundred and a thousand years! The following Discovery Channel documentary tells us more.
Unsurprisingly, with its fantasy landscape and eerie atmosphere, Centralia has been the inspiration for books, video games and films including Silent Hill (2006) where monsters prowl the town of Silent Hill, abandoned after a mine fire.
Amazingly, Centralia is not unique. Mount Wingen, NSW, Australia is known as Burning Mountain. The underground coal seam under this mountain has been burning for six thousand years!