In 1962, on the outskirts of the sleepy little town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, firefighters conducted a control burn in a landfill and allowed it to burn for some time. Unbeknownst to them, an unsealed opening created a breach in an abandoned strip mine. Connected to the strip mine is a cluster of coal veins running near the surface. The burning trash ignited the coal which started on of the longest burning fires in U.S. History.
For hours firefighters battled the blaze and thought the fire extinguished only to find it reignited a few days later. Again, firefighters fought for days and thought it to be out. For the next two decades, workers attempted to douse the flames.
All firefighting efforts failed and local government officials delayed taking any real action to save the nearby village of Centralia.
By the early 1980, the fire affected approximately 350 acres. Hundreds of homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide levels reached life threatening levels.
On February 14, 1981, the ground collapsed under Todd Domboski and created a hole 150 feet deep and four feet in diameter. Todd clung to an exposed tree root and was pulled to safety by his cousin. The heat from the breach would have been sufficient to kill him instantly if he had gone just a little deeper in the crater. The incident provoked the first national media attention.
A 1983 engineering study revealed that the fire could burn for another century or even more and “could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres.” Other studies have shown that if the fire is not contained it will continue to spread and eventually threaten the neighboring town of Ashland.
By 1991, there was fire under about 600 surface acres with no further plans to fight the fire.
As time passed, the cost of fighting the fire and helping the residents of Centralia increased. Fifty years later with more than 50 million dollars spent, the fire still burns through the coal mines under the town and surrounding hillside.
The town was ripped apart as fire, smoke, fumes, and toxic gases seeped through the back yards, basements and streets of Centralia. Most homes were condemned and residents were relocated over the years with federal government grants. A few die-hard souls refused to be relocated and still remain in the town.
By 1997 the population of Centralia dwindled to just 44 remaining residents.
In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents.
Today Centralia is almost a ghost town.
The motorists who drive past Centralia on Route 61 are totally unaware of the sad history surrounding the village.