Fire Starts in 1962, Never Burns Out

by | Oct 13, 2009 10:55 AM ET

Sometimes in this blog, we'll tell you about places you should visit. And sometimes we'll tell you about places where you might get swallowed by a pit of fire. 

Today, we'll do the latter. Welcome to Centralia, a mostly abandoned town in east-central Pennsylvania. In 1962, a coal mine caught fire, and the flames spread through the mine shafts and tunnels beneath the town. Efforts to extinguish the fire failed -- forevermore. The fire still rages today and is expected to rage for another 250 years.

For two decades, people remained in the town, ignoring the burning inferno beneath. But in February 1981, a scary thing happened. A kid who was playing in his backyard noticed a hole opening in the ground, walked toward it and then tumbled into it. Fortunately, he grabbed onto a tree root and his cousin pulled him to safety. Otherwise, he would have fallen into a hot pit of poisonous carbon monoxide. A few weeks later, an elderly man almost died when carbon monoxide from the burning coal leaked into his home.  

After that, the community got concerned -- very concerned -- and ultimately fell apart, according to sociologist Stephen R. Couch. Town meetings got heated and resulted in fist fights and tire slashing. Then, bad news surfaced that the fire was likely to spread from 200 acres to 3,700 acres underground. After that, U.S. Congress passed a bill to pay for the relocation of citizens. Before long, the town of Centralia was just a ghost.

Centralia's not much of a vacation destination, but you can see why it might attract some curious folks. There are pits in the ground -- 20 feet deep -- where, according to Kevin Krajik, a Smithsonian magazine writer, tires have melted and burnt trees "lie in tangled heaps." Some of these gaping holes hiss poisonous gas. Not even the dead are safe -- a graveyard is shrouded in smoke from the burning hell beneath. After residents left the town, the government leveled the houses. So, all that's left are a bunch of streets to nowhere. That and a fire that, in all these years, no one's been able to put out.   

For more on fire, fire, fire...

How Fire Breathing Works

What is St. Elmo's Fire?

Did the Great Chicago Fire really start with Mrs. O'Leary's cow?

(Note of thanks: This blog post was sparked via a tip from How-to blogger Cristen Conger, who came across Joshua Foer's blog post on the fire.) 

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