Centralia, Pennsylvania was a mining town home to over 1,500 residents. The town had a problem: illegal trash dumps that created odors and rat infestations. To solve the problem, in 1962 the city council created a new landfill and directed the cleanup of the illegal trash dumps.
One such dump was an old strip mine 300 feet long and 50 feet deep. To clean up the trash in the strip mine the Centralia council had it set on fire. Bad idea. While competing theories exist, this trash fire most likely sparked the fires in the coal mines that ran below the town. The fire spread around abandoned mines and now burns over a 400-acre area.
Attempts were made to put the fires out but to no avail. Operating mines were closed due to high carbon monoxide levels. The below-ground fire created hellish conditions. David DeKok in his book “Unseen Danger” about the Centralia fire describes the underground conditions as follows:
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.
Sinkholes opened up which spewed noxious gas. A 12-year-old boy fell into a sudden sinkhole and almost died. Houses became unliveable. “Even the dead cannot rest in peace,” wrote Greg Walter for People in 1981. “Graves in the town’s two cemeteries are believed to have dropped into the abyss of fire that rages below them.”
The city became unliveable. The Federal government bought out the residents so they could move. Most accepted the offer but a few holdouts remain; today, less than 10 people live in Centralia and are prohibited by court order from passing down their property or selling it.
Mining experts think that putting out the fire is impossible and that it will likely burn for another 250 years.