Centralia is a borough and near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. Centralia, part of the Bloomsburg-Berwick metropolitan area, is Pennsylvania's least-populated municipality.
Because of a coal mine fire that has been burning beneath the borough since 1962, its population has decreased from 1,000 in 1980 to five people in 2020.
Although this area had a settlement before the 18th century, Centralia was not platted until the middle of the 19th century. Alexander Rae, an engineer, founded the town in 1842 and quickly drew others to help with the coal mining effort.
How the fire started
The town quickly developed and became economically dependent on the coal-producing industry.
More than 2,700 people lived in the city in 1890, the majority of them were miners or members of their families. Yet while the Great Depression and stock market crash dealt Centralia's coal sector a serious hit, the community was nevertheless able to survive.
The Centralia landfill, a former mine pit that had been transformed into a trash dump in 1962, appears to have been the catalyst for the catastrophe. The municipal council wanted to address the problems of rats and unpleasant odors caused by Centralia's abundance of unregulated dumps.
The Centralia City Council suggested in May 1962 that the neighborhood dump be cleaned up in time for Memorial Day celebrations.
Lighting the dump on fire
A dump was cleaned up by the Centralia Council by lighting it on fire.
It is believed that the Centralia dump fire started a much bigger mine fire beneath the town, despite the fact that there are opposing hypotheses regarding how the fire started.
Additional flames were discovered and extinguished near the dump four days later. After a few weeks, the fire had spread throughout the town's system of mining tunnels.
Shortly, a coal seam beneath Centralia caught on fire. The local mines were forced to close owing to dangerous carbon monoxide levels after it spread to mine tunnels beneath town streets. There were several unsuccessful attempts to dig and extinguish the fire.
The underground blaze persisted and progressively crept across the coal seam. The mine shafts served as an air pull to feed the fire. It is possible that one, many, or all of the area's abandoned mine tunnels are contributing to the fire.
It was extremely expensive and probably impossible to identify which mine tunnels are stoking the fire and to shut off every one of them because there are so many abandoned mine tunnels in the vicinity. One, several, or all of them may be the cause of the fire.
The city's foundation heated up over time, with some areas seeing temperatures above 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Gas-filled basements and sinkholes both released smoke. Homes started to tilt, and locals started to report health issues.
Congress decided to induce the inhabitants to leave by buying them out rather than putting out the fire. Eventually, in 1992, Pennsylvania took action to permanently expel the holdouts.
The whole city of Centralia was demolished, and its ZIP code was removed.
As one of the 38 known ongoing mine fires in Pennsylvania, Centralia still burns today. The state's Department of Environmental Protection estimates that if the fire is not put out, it may continue to burn for another 100 years.
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