Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The deserted town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been smoldering for 53 years after a dump-burn gone wrong.
It’s known as “the town that’s always on fire.” That’s because Centralia, an abandoned coal-mining town tucked away in eastern Pennsylvania, has been burning for 53 years. And according to this new video from Atlas Obscura’s series 100 Wonders, it won’t stop smoldering for another 250 years.
It all began, the filmmakers explain, with a Memorial Day dump fire in 1962. It was supposed to burn out on its own, as most dump fires do, but this one crawled underground and into an open coal seam. Firefighters tried to put it out, but eventually gave up due to lack of funding and because the underground fire didn’t seem like an emergency. The fire soon spread into the network of mines that lay under people’s homes and businesses. Eventually, poisonous gas from the fire threatened the town’s air quality, and a massive sink hole opened up, nearly swallowing a 12-year-old boy in 1981.
Starting in 1984, more than 1,100 of the town’s 1,400 residents moved away with assistance from a $42 million federal relocation program. The state government then claimed the town in 1992 using eminent domain. Roughly 500 buildings were demolished, leaving the town looking like a scene out of the 2006 horror film Silent Hill (which was, in fact, partially inspired by Centralia). Today, only 11 residents still live there. They say that the still-burning coal fire is no longer a threat to the town or its air quality.
At the beginning of the video, the camera pans left to a stretch of cracked highway covered with graffiti. That’s Route 61, which runs through the town and is its unofficial tourist destination. Curious travelers have left their marks and signatures on this “graffiti highway.”
“It may be just an abandoned highway, but it’s a very peaceful place to go and I can totally feel the history when I’m walking down the ... highway,” Nicholas Cellucci, a resident of a nearby town, told local Pennsylvania newspaper The Standard Speaker. “A lot of the graffiti is pretty crude, but my favorite thing to do is just walk slowly and try to find new pieces of art I haven’t seen before.”
The Centralia fire may be one of the nation’s most infamous coal-mine fires, but there are hundreds of similar ones burning in the U.S. and thousands across the world. Thirty-eight are in Pennsylvania alone, one of which threatens Pittsburgh International Airport. The state government is taking that one seriously, with plans to spend $1.4 million putting it out.
The world is paying closer attention to underground coal fires, reports Earth Magazine. But as global demand for coal continues to rise, so will the number of fires—quietly releasing greenhouse gases into the air and burning the planet from the inside out.