The Centralia Mine Fire



  “Centralia, once a successful mining town in the coal region of Pennsylvania, now possesses the state's least populated community. What happened to this once thriving borough living on the riches of the mining industry? One spring day in May of 1962 is to thank for this dilemma as a fire has been burning underground ever since. Throughout this website, we will explore several themes revolving around this tragic incident. This website will cover the origin of this mining community and how the fire not only started, but the negative impact it caused the town. As a result of the fire and the dangers to citizens, government officials were called to intervene as compensation was given for many to leave their lifetime homes. This website will even cover current day issues the town faces as several families continue living in this ghost town.”

The Centralia Mine Fire website will also incorporate information directly from a citizen who moved out of the town as this entire ordeal was occurring. I will share my great aunt’s interesting recollections with everyone to get the most accurate idea of what this was like for someone living in the town at the time. Living so close to the town of Centralia, I am also very excited to represent the area I've grown up in and share that world with everyone who isn't familiar with the coal region. To me it's very interesting that such a small and unique town is right in my back yard. Books have been written about it, as have articles in magazines such as People and Time. Centralia has even inspired a horror movie. Despite the uncertainty of the future of this fire, I am certain that my research will provide a solid and interesting tale of a struggling town.


Centralia's Significance

What’s so special about Centralia’s mine fire that I need to dedicate an entire webpage to it? After all, this fire isn’t the only burning within our nations boarders. In fact, it’s not even the only one burning with our state boarders, one of thirty eight to be exact (Morton). These underground blazes range from Alabama to Wyoming, and even to global destinations such as China and India (Morton). Again, to repeat my initial question, why spend all this time on little, old Centralia? Centralia has been home to family, that itself can justify any speculation. Take the nice countryside area where our family and community reside, travel over those farmlands and mountain and arrive on the footsteps of Centralia. Feelings of sheer amazement will develop as one sees the drastic change in scenery from green farmland to a deserted and barren area. This borough, home to several relatives, is now called Centralia, the least populated community in Pennsylvania (Walter).


 “This town was home to me, to my family, our children went to school there, and we loved everything about what it had to offer,” stated my great aunt, Lorraine Sedor. After starting an interview with this quote I knew I was in for a rather interesting history lesson. My aunt, one of about 4,000 to inhabit Centralia, a predominantly Catholic community, loved everything about living there. The small coal region town had everything someone who enjoyed this lifestyle would need to live happily. Aunt Rainy, as we call her, lived on Myers St with her husband and four children. The kids attended St. Ignatius Catholic school (Sedor). Every weekend everyone took a nice trip to the top of the hill and attended Mass at The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a Greek Catholic church service (Sedor). My aunt, who recently lost her husband, proudly stated that at this point in her life, her family was prospering along with the coal mining community she called home. Then the events of May 1962 happened.

In May of 1962, an abandoned strip mine, then being used as an unregulated garbage dump, was identified as the origin to this entire problem (Staler). An accidental fire started and spread from this pit southeast of the town into one of the coal seams and eventually into the mines, causing all of them to immediately close. Several years went by with very little worry. In fact, several townspeople believed the fire would put itself out. The most notable of attempts to end this scare was in the year of 1965. The plan was simple, locate and extinguish the flames (Walter). Unfortunately, local funds ran out and this original plan was abandoned (Walter). Several events would eventually result in a decreased town population and national attention.

Tension Building

 Approximately a decade of unsuccessful attempts to extinguish the fires, conditions became extremely hazardous, too dangerous for people to even raise a family in. Aunt Lorraine remembers the year of 1979 like it just happened yesterday. One of her neighbors, Tom Coddington, owned an Amoco station. Coddington discovered that the temperature in the underground gasoline storage tanks at his business had risen to 172° F (Sedor). Fearing an explosion, he was forced to drain the tanks. Several months later Coddington was rushed to a nearby hospital after being overcome by carbon monoxide. As a result of exposure to carbon monoxide, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines ordered a total of six families to move (Sedor).

On Valentine’s Day of 1980, a twelve year old boy by the name of Todd Domboski went out to examine smoke he saw rising from his grandmother's backyard. Domboski fell into a fuming hole that suddenly opened under his feet, and was saved only because a cousin had seen the accident and was able to pull him out (Pennsylvania: The Town at the Entrance to Hell). “When that Domboski was nearly killed as a result of the fires, I felt as if this had a massive effect on my children, they were afraid to play outside in fear of falling into a hole.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that it was at this point in time that she believed the family needed a change, a change to protect their physical and mental health. Moving out of Centralia seemed logical as surface temperatures in backyards were measured at 600°F, the ground was collapsing and releasing steaming hot clouds of smoke and gas, and even housing foundations began tilting out of line (Pennsylvania: The Town at the Entrance to Hell).

To Move or Not to Move

You can replace a home, you can't replace a family. A lot of us would be happy if the Government moved us. We've been waiting 19 years for them to put out the fire,” said Joan Girolami. What was there in Centralia to still hold on to? Maybe loyalty to the community that you’ve grown up in, a certain loyalty where a belief the fire would somehow burn itself out existed. By the 1980’s, not only were the mines closed in Centralia but factories were closing down as well, leaving no job opportunities whatsoever. Add all the health concerns on top of this and why would anyone with a family feel it necessary to stay? Some were convinced that all of this was the plan of coal companies to drive them off the land, land very rich in coal (Staler). After all, the borough owned the mineral rights to all coal below everyone’s property. The dedicated Centralians who would not leave were proud; they didn’t want coal kings to take over the land that was rightfully theirs.

Aunt Lorraine didn’t live in one of these dedicated families, and I completely understand why. In 1986 the government came in and appraised their home on Myers St. My relatives, along with many of the others who took money from the federal government, made more money than their houses were originally worth (Sedor). Take the beautiful development of Denmar Gardens for example; gorgeous homes were built in this nearby settlement due to the great money people got from moving out of Centralia (Sedor). What did Aunt Lorraine have to lose? Her children couldn’t go to school in town anymore due to the closing of St. Ignatius; they had to take a bus to a neighboring community each and every day. Both her and her husband worked out of town anyway, the closing of business in Centralia had no effect on their job sites (Sedor). Despite the close knit community she once called home, the family moved to the beautiful countryside of Numidia, a magnificent place to call home. “A place I still love to call home,” smiled Aunt Lorraine.

Problem: Why is it Still Burning?

Although the Centralia mine fire has had such a tragic impact on a once thriving community, it has been left to burn. It may be due to the dangers of dealing with it. Perhaps the cost and difficulty of fixing it explain why it’s still burning in the present.  The typical techniques used on these types of fires just don’t provide legitimate solutions on one as large as Centralia (Staler). Water may produce steam explosions, and there are too many networks of oxygen supplying holes to seal it off with cement and ash. Even techniques to dig outthe fire and smother it on the surface have been considered. Unfortunately it’s too dangerous and too costly to use on a fire as large as Centralia. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PDEP), our state is particularly difficult for solving a problem such as this because we have the largest abandoned mine problem in the country (Staler).

The PDEP has been taking drastic and expensive steps into ending dangerous mine fires all across the state. Mine fires are broken into two classifications, priority one and priority two. One and a half billion dollars have been put towards fixing vulnerable coal seams, open mine shafts, and pits as they were given the first priority (Staler). These number one priorities are more of a precautionary step to prevent fires from ever occurring. Centralia was classified as priority two in the late 80’s because the fires were not presenting an immediate danger to the general public. Or were they? Several people that studied Centralia believe this fire could have devastating environmental consequences, releasing hazardous gases into the air and polluting groundwater. Some even believe it’s a disaster from an energy point of view due to how much high-grade coal is going to waste (Morton).

A Potential Solution

Who would ever think a commercial firefighting company in Ft. Worth, Texas was planning to fix a fifty year problem all the way in Centralia, Pennsylvania? CAFSCO Fire Control believes they can extinguish the local mine fire. How? With their compressed nitrogen foam system, originally developed to put out forest fires (Morton). This foam has been adapted to fight underground coal fires, with great amounts of success! Lisa LaFosse, the co-owner of CAFSCO, doesn’t believe there’s any fire too big, and she guarantees their product could fill up any size mine.

To those who think the cost would be excessive, think again. A fire can be extinguished at a tenth of the cost of digging out the affected area. With CAFSCO’s method you don’t even have to see the fire to fight it, allowing a great possibility for future mining of unburned coal still present (Morton). Still not convinced that this substance may have what it takes to get this job done? This foam system is biodegradable and works in a number of ways to suppress flames (Morton). The process starts by pumping foam into holes on the surface, the foam then expands to fill all available space where it successfully soaks up all fuel and extinguishes the fire. To make this substance even better, while expanding the foam creates positive pressure forcing out any unconsumed oxygen that could further feed the fire (Morton).

The good news keeps getting better as CAFSCO has been using this product to put out dozens of mine fires across the country. Centralia is a monster fire, but these Ft. Worth firefighters believe they can eliminate this problem in a month for $60 million (Morton). Not too shabby, a fifty year problem potentially ended in a month. Some experts confidently believe this foam will extinguish the fires of Centralia. Others aren’t quite convinced. PDEP still needs more evidence that this can work, until then a project this large will not get serious consideration. As of now the PDEP believes Centralia is too big a project to take such an expensive risk. Until the time is right, CAFSCO will work with PDEP to gain their trust and earn a chance at the big one in little Centralia, Pennsylvania (Morton).

Several Other Pennsylvania Mine Fires

1. Laurel Run Mine Fire-
 On a cold day in December of 1915, miners working for the Red Ash Coal Company in Laurel Run Borough crashed a fully loaded coal car and dumped everything from it amongst the mine floor, including a lantern (Laurel Run Mine Fire). Without realizing a lantern had even spilled from the cart, it had eventually set fire to the timber and the timber had set fire to a nearby coal vein, starting the Laurel Run Mine Fire (Laurel Run Mine Fire). After believing the small fire was extinguished, it wasn’t until 1921 that additional evidence surfaced proving the fire was still burning. Through the 1950’s, while the mine was still being mined, several effort were attempted to put out the flames. Unfortunately in the year of 1957, the Red Ash Mine went out of business, ultimately ending any efforts to clear up the fire as well (Laurel Run Mine Fire). The surface began to de-stabilize due to the rock-hard coal slowly turning to ash from the continually burning fire. The community began having problems with smoke and gases flowing into homes, forcing people to leave. The foundations of homes began to crumble and people were beginning to physically suffer from high levels of poisonous gasses (Laurel Run Mine Fire). Eventually, by the year of 1966, some progress was made as crucial fire containment efforts were made through the Appalachian Regional Commission. By 1973, the mine fire containment was considered complete and a success (Laurel Run Mine Fire).

2. Powderly Mine Fire-
It was in 1942 in Carbondale when a coal seam within a stripping pit was ignited by spontaneous combustion caused by people throwing trash in the seam. Similar to Centralia, this fire has been burning ever since (Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.). The Powderly mine fire is about 400 acres in size and growing rapidly every day, forcing many people to leave the city. In the 1950’s there were two reported deaths due to carbon monoxide inhalation (Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.). Another such fire was ignited in 1995 after more trash was to blame for igniting the underground. Attempts have been made to extinguish the fire. One in particular was trying to dig a 150 foot trench down into the mine. However, unlike many other attempts this one was unsuccessful (Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.). What makes this fire more dangerous than the one we just learned about in Centralia? Carbondale's fires are at least twice as big as the mine fire of Centralia. Despite Centralia having almost their entire population relocate, more people have moved out of Carbondale. It’s much higher population leaves the majority of the town intact still. According to some citizens of Carbondale they have no idea that there is a fire burning underneath their feet. One thing for sure, the few who remain in Centralia are completely aware of their underground flames (Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.).

Map of Centralia's Location In Pennsylvania



Staler, Peter. “The Hottest Town in America.” Time. Time,22 June 1981: 1-2. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

2.       Interview Aunt Rainy

Sedor, Lorraine. Personal interview. 26. Nov. 2010

Morton, Mary. “Hot as Hell: Firefighting foam heats up coal fire debate in Centralia, Pa.” Earth May 2010: n. pag. American Geological Institute. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.


“Pennsylvania: The Town at the Entrance to Hell.” The Prince George Free Press 25 Sept. 2008: 17. ProQuest. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.


Walter, Greg. “A Town with a Hot Problem  Decides Not to Move Mountains but to Move Itself.” People. People, 22 June 1981. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.


"Laurel Run Mine Fire." The Official Website Of Abandoned Mine Research, Inc. . Underground Miners, 2005. Web. 5 Dec 2010.   <>.

7."Powderly Mine Fire." The Official Website Of Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.. Underground Miners, 2005. Web. 5 Dec 2010. <>.

8. Photos came from Wikimedia Commons, which gives anyone the right to use photos for any purpose.