On May 27, 1962, Memorial Day of that year, the citizens of the mining town, Centralia, Pennsylvania, attended to their civic duty by putting out the trash. That day, borough personnel set fire to one of the town’s unregulated waste dumps, a common method of waste disposal in Centralia. Five volunteer firefighters from the Centralia Fire Department supervised the trash disposal, and they doused the flames with water once the items on the waste dump had been burned. On May 29, 1962, someone reported the heap was still smoldering. The firefighters sprayed the heap with water hoses.
On June 4, 1962, flames were again visible on the garbage heap. The firefighters sprayed the heap with water hoses a second time. When the firefighters bulldozed the garbage heap to locate the source of the fire, they found that it had been concealing a hole that had not been filled with noncombustible material. Since its founding by Alexander Rae in 1842, Centralia had always been a mining town. Therefore, the practice of burning garbage heaps included an additional precaution: Before setting the dump on fire, fill any nearby holes with noncombustible material. Any unfilled holes provided potential openings for oxygen from the many coal mines underneath the town to oxidize the fire. By the time the firefighters discovered the unfilled hole, a coal seam fire was already burning underground.
A coal seam fires is an underground fire in an abandoned coal mine. Once it is started above ground due to human error or spontaneous combustion, the fire seeps below ground. Fed by oxygen in the coal mines, it spreads from mine to mine. Though a coal seam fire cannot be seen above ground, its effects can be readily felt. They heat the ground above them, create sinkholes in the earth large enough to displace people or cars, and intensify global warming by spitting carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, eight unsuccessful attempts to put out the fire in Centralia were made, partially because the initial report contained erroneous information about the source of the fire. Since human error was not listed as the cause, the town was initially eligible for state aid. First, the firefighters dug trenches in the underground coal mines, but the fire spread too quickly to be contained. Next the firefighters tried flushing, a process involving boring holes above ground and pouring wet sand, gravel, wet cement, and fly ash down the holes to deprive a fire of oxygen. As in many cases, the technique of flushing was unsuccessful, because the fire was so hot it burned away the materials poured down the holes. When flushing failed, state and federal geologists drilled holes above ground to define the path of the fire, then dug a trench along its supposed pathway.
Unfortunately, the fire had already spread further than the path predicted by geologists. The idea to flood the area was rejected, due to the high probability that the water would not reach all of the underground paths the fire traveled. The city rejected a plan to dig a pit three quarters of a mile long and forty-five stories deep, because it would have cost six hundred sixty million dollars.
By 1992, the federal government was only concerned with the human cost of the thriving fire, which could burn for another one hundred fifty years. That year, the federal government condemned all of the homes in Centralia. Then the government claimed the houses, using the privilege of eminent domain, a concept originating in the 1876 court case, authorizing the federal government to claim land for public use. [In 1984, another court decision required the federal government to offer compensation to those whose land was seized.] In 2002, the United States government revoked Centralia’s postal code.
The fire could threaten the town. The federal government could practically erase it. What neither could do, however, was change the minds of citizens who still considered Centralia their home. In his 1981 article for People magazine, “A Town with a Hot Problem Decides Not to Move Mountains, but to Move Itself,” Greg Walter spoke with Helen Womer, then fifty-two, who refused to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in her house. Mrs. Womer and her husband, Carl, refused to stop burning coal in their home. “We’re not going to let the coal barons win,” she told Warner. John Lokitis , thirty-five as of 2017, stayed in Centralia because his great grandfather, one of three generations of coal miners, promised the fire would never reach the family home.
When the federal government revoked Centralia’s zip code, Lokitis painted the numbers on all of the mailboxes, though some of the houses were no longer inhabited. The townspeople filed two lawsuits contesting the federal government’s claim of public domain. The lawsuit was decided in the government’s favor a second time in 2013. Presently, the federal government is allowing the remaining townspeople to live out their natural lives in their homes, but they are not permitted to sell their homes or pass them to their descendants. When they die, the government will claim their homes.
As of 2017, the town had less than five residents. The remaining residents live without many civic services, including road signs and a police force. Since it no longer has a zip code, no one who isn’t already aware of the town can locate it. Known for its unending fire and the graffiti the tourists draw on the roads of the nearly empty town, Centralia now attracts more tourists than settlers. One couple still living in the town as of 2017, Jack and Becky, said they were used to living with the potential dangers caused by the unstoppable fire. The tourists sometimes did not respect the physical property in the town or the collective personal choice of its current citizens to remain in their homes. Worse yet from the perspective of the remaining citizens, the tourists never bring any money to the town. Said Becky, “For the last five years […tourists have] been way more destructive than the fire.”