The town that constantly burns
There have been many stories in the press over the summer period describing vast natural fires springing up across the globe perpetuated by high temperatures and minimal rainfall. The USA, Greece, England and Sweden are just a few of the places grabbing headlines, the latter of which proving the most alarming with Sweden’s outbreak occurring within the arctic circle.
Most of these fires have now burned off or been dealt with by the local authorities, but with the serious effects these sorts of fires can have on infrastructure and local health it’s hard to fathom what the long-term effects might be.
What if however, the fire didn’t end, that it became self-perpetuating to a point so uncontrollable that it burned for decades forcing civilisation to relocate? However unlikely this scenario may sound, the residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania have had to face this problem head on for over 50 years.
Centralia is a small mining town, first settled in 1841 which grew into an important supplier of coal for both the construction of Route 61 an important mainline road and much of the area's steam powered infrastructure. By 1854 a new rail route was constructed to transport coal out of the valley to the wider market of Pennsylvania. As the town's underground mining network continued to expand, so too its population, peaking in 1890 to 2,761. The area had real appeal, boasting seven churches, five hotels, 27 saloons, two theatres, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores.
Despite challenges created through price fluctuations and governmental restriction, coal mining in Centralia continued all the way through to the 1960’s when an accident would change the region forever. In May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill. Like many councils across the US the approach to this problem was to burn the waste in large open pits. With most of the waste cremated, the fire was doused and left to smoulder. Beneath the warm ash however small hot coals had found a way into the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia igniting the leftover ash and rock.
Due to the dump’s location away from the town’s limits, the fire was able to burn for years with no detection. Its first recorded discovery happened when petrol station owner John Coddington inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. As the rod was removed he could feel the heat radiating off the end and decided to test the tanks temperature with a thermometer. Underground tank's tend to rest at around 80°F, but this time the result read a staggering 172 °F.
Sinkholes started to pop up across the town, with large plumes of continuous steam emanating. Tests conducted on these thick steams found them to contain a lethal level of carbon monoxide. Further evaluation of the area suggested that the underground fire stretched across 400 acres with miles of old coal tunnels yet to face ignition.
Despite the serious health risks involved there was much local debate about whether this fire posed any real threat to the town's people. The debate lasted for years as residents continued to live above the fire waiting for an overall consensus. Finally, in 1983 the decision was made to abandon the town. The U.S. Congress allocated around $42 million for relocation efforts, and more than 1,000 people moved followed by the demolition of 500 buildings.
By this point the fire had reached another town located a few miles south of Centralia forcing the locals to also relocate. Today the town has just six stubborn residents whom have fought the local authorities for years claiming their constitutional rights to remain in Centralia. That was granted in 2013, and now all that remains is a few houses and a road network slowly being taken back by nature.
Today the fire still burns beneath, and until the main vein of coal has been combusted there will be no end in sight for the fire of Centralia.