Hundreds of coal mine fires continue to burn beneath the ground across the US to this day—a majority of which are found in Pennsylvania, home to the world's largest deposits of coal. For over 50 years, the Pennsylvania town of Centralia has become a ghost town as of a result. Lethal levels of carbon monoxide spew from cracks in the Earth, transportation routes have been shut down and the majority of the city's residents have been forced to leave.
Although Centralia was declared as “condemned” under Pennsylvania's former governor in 1992, a few homes, buildings and stubborn residents remain. Cracked streets run through the spooky deserted town where smoke rises from its cemeteries. The only indication of the fire burning beneath the surface are a few low round metal steam vents and several signs warning of the fire, unstable ground and carbon monoxide. But it's also inspired many pieces of literature and film, including the 2006 horror movie Silent Hill, where characters wander through the misty town that has been abandoned due to a prolonged mine fire.
How did it happen?
On May 27, 1962, the fire department set the town's landfill ablaze in an ill-fated attempt to clean up for Memorial Day as it had done in previous years. This time around, however, the landfill was in a different location and the fire was not fully extinguished. An unsealed opening allowed for the fire to reach the coal outcropping, or abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia, and it's been burning since.
“This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn's,” describes David DeKok in Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire. “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."
Although the dangers posed by the decades old fire has left the town abandoned, a few bullish folks remain. In the land with no zip code, the 2010 census still counted 10 residents in Centralia. Despite geological studies that suggest the area is spewing with toxic gases and the fire could possibly break open more pathways through to the surface, they refuse to leave.
"It's very difficult to quantify the threat, but the major threat would be infiltration of the fire gases into the confined space of a residential living area. That was true from the very beginning and will remain true even after the fire moves out of the area," according to Tim Altares, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
In the 1980s, more than 1,000 people were evacuated from the town under a $42 million federal relocation program that demolished 500 structures with it. The few who refused to leave, even after their houses were seized in the early 1990s, accuse mining companies and other officials of a plot to snatch billions of dollars worth of anthracite coal.
After years of leaving them alone, the state Department of Community and Economic Development is now taking action to remove the remaining homeowners. Those who continue to resist are pleading their case in federal court. To them, it's home and they intend on keeping it that way.
The fire may burn for hundreds of years to come, but its remaining residents are so set on staying put that the town is sure to be haunted for a long time whether they are permitted to or not.