There's A Town In America That Has Been On Fire For 60 Years
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Featured Image Credit: Alamy
Words by Andrew Ward
A huge fire in central Pennsylvania has been burning for more than six decades, wreaking havoc on a quiet mining town and drawing tourists from all over the world.
The inferno was started around 1962 – and continues to burn below what was once a small working-class community in Centralia, Columbia County.
While the exact cause of the fire is debated, it’s reported that local council members had discussed plans to raze a growing landfill site in the lead-up to that year’s Memorial Day festivities.
However, any control over the inferno was lost once it reached a shuttered underground coal mine that was believed to have been sealed shut. The blaze eventually reached a coal vein, spreading the fire further underground.
Local firefighters spent several months attempting to extinguish the inferno. By September that year, progress was being made – but efforts were hampered when firefighters were given three days off to celebrate the Labor Day holiday. Without any relief staff on hand, the fire quickly regained the scorched ground it had lost.
Later attempts to tackle the blaze, including digging a surrounding trench in the mine, proved unsuccessful. By then, the fire extended hundreds of feet into the ground.
Out of options and in need of financial assistance, Centralia turned to the state for help. But as officials dithered, weeks turned into months, and the fire grew more substantial.
Seven years later, roads and backyards began to crack, and the natural vents filled the town with smoke. The haunting images served as the inspiration for the Silent Hill video game series.
Any citizens who were still living in the town were asked to move by local officials. With rising temperatures and unstable ground, homes and local businesses were gradually closed and razed.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Centralia's slow decimation, and nature's reclaiming of the region. The closure and evacuation efforts increased in February 1981 when 12-year-old Todd Domboski nearly fell into a 150-foot sinkhole that opened under his feet in his grandmother's backyard.
Laughing in the face of tragedy, some dubbed Centralia ‘the hottest town in Pennsylvania’. All the while, the fire burned on as the recovery costs grew. An early 1980s study put the cost of extinguishing the fire at $660 million (£550 million), or $1.5 billion (£1.25 billion) today.
Rather than fight the fire any longer, the state began to buy people's property, moving many families to nearby trailer parks. In the 2017 documentary Centralia: Pennsylvania's Lost Town, former Centralia Mayor Anne Marie Devine said that the state deemed it "easier and cheaper to put the people out than the fire".
People continued to leave Centralia over the following years, whether by choice, government closure or death. As they did, more of the town would be levelled. Today, much of Centralia is gone, except for a few buildings and the fire below. Single homes remain dotted throughout the city. Often, stop signs guard long-gone communities.
One of the few structures remaining is the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Built in 1911, the congregation remains active, taking pride in its ability to sustain through tragedy.
It isn't encouraged, but scores of tourists visit the area to hike through what were once busy neighbourhoods and backyards.
The most alluring part of Centralia was the so-called ‘Graffiti Highway’, the former strip of Pennsylvania Highway 61 that once cut through the town centre. After citizens left, the road was shut down, becoming a destination for street artists, ATV riders and others enjoying a subtle slice of dark tourism.
Visitors have called for the site to become an official tourist attraction, believing it could help boost local business. But in 2020, the owner covered Graffiti Highway with dirt, making it the latest and one of the last parts of Centralia to be reclaimed by the earth.
Today, a few Centralia residents live out their final years at home, thanks to agreements with the state. Those citizens can live their remaining years in their homes, with their property seized afterwards by the government through what is known as the 'eminent domain' process.
However, Centralia as a town had peaked long before the fire. The population began to dwindle from its highest point, approximately 2,700, around 1900. By 1962, around 1,400 residents remained. Today, its population stands somewhere between four and 14.