Half a century ago, Centralia, Pennsylvania was a bustling coal mining town. It had schools, churches, theatres, and grocery stores. It was home to more than 2,000 people. Today, the once-thriving industrial community is a smouldering expanse of overgrown streets, cracked pavement, and charred trees. Everywhere, streams of toxic gas spew into the air from hundreds of fissures in the ground.
It’s not completely clear how the fire started in May 1962, but most historical accounts hold that burning trash in a landfill near an abandoned strip mine ignited an exposed coal vein. The fire spread throughout a labyrinth of coal mines beneath the town, essentially creating a giant underground inferno.
Workers battled the fire for almost two decades, but all attempts to extinguish the massive blaze proved unsuccessful.
In 1981, amid growing health concerns over dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, Centralia’s plight was launched onto the national radar when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole. Decades of intense underground heat was causing the pavement to crumble.
In the following years, Congress set aside more than $42 million to relocate residents. Abandoned houses were bulldozed to the ground. Some townspeople, however, refused to leave.
In 2010, the town’s last nine residents were fighting to keep the state from evicting them and demolishing their homes.
Now Centralia has been burning for almost 50 years. Experts say there is enough coal to fuel the fire for another 250 years.
Centralia is a borough in the northeastern mountains of Pennsylvania. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked the town's ZIP code, 17927.
The branch of Route 61 that runs through the town was permanently closed when it became too expensive to repair
One of the few remaining homes in Centralia. Brick buttresses hold the walls up. Only a short distance away, coal fires still rage.
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