How an Underground Fire Destroyed an Entire Town

Atlas Obscura
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June 4 2014 1:53 PM

How an Underground Fire Destroyed an Entire Town

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In October 2013, the eight remaining residents of the once 2,700-strong town of Centralia in Pennsylvania won a long court battle over the right to stay in their homes. The inhabitants of the former mining settlement are now free to keep living in an overgrown field criss-crossed by cracked roads that belch carbon monoxide from their crevices.

Located on a rich seam of anthracite coal, Centralia was settled as a mining town in the mid-1800s. After reaching its peak population of 2,761 in 1890, Centralia was home to around 1,400 people when the mines began to close in the 1960s.

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In 1962, something happened that would transform Centralia from a quaint and lively small town into a bleak and hazardous wasteland: an underground fire began to burn out of control.

The exact cause of the fire is still disputed—some argue that it resulted from the volunteer fire department's annual burning of landfill, while others claim that a coal fire from 1932 was never fully extinguished, and had been slowly spreading toward an abandoned strip-mine pit.

Despite growing awareness of the fire burning uncontrolled beneath the town, the scale of the problem did not become widely apparent until 1979. That year, mayor and gas-station owner John Coddington was checking the fuel levels of his underground tanks when he discovered that the gasoline had been heated to 172 degrees Fahrenheit.

A real shocker came in 1981, when the ground tried to swallow Todd Domboski. The 12-year-old was walking in his backyard when the ground gave way and he fell eight feet into a smoking sinkhole. Domboski was able to hold onto tree roots at the sides of the hole and got pulled to safety, which is just as well: the sinkhole was later found to be about 150 feet deep and filled with lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

Following these troubling incidents, the government began claiming Centralia properties under eminent domain and relocating residents. The population fell from 1,017 in 1980 to 21 in 2000. Centralia lost its ZIP code in 2002.

The eight residents of Centralia have been granted the right to stay there for the rest of their lives, after which the government will take possession of their properties. Meanwhile, the fire rages on.


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