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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 17 April, 2014

In pics: Tour the town that’s been burning for 50 years

Centralia in Pennsylvania was once a bustling mining town but a fire which spread through its coal mines is still raging half a century on…

This is the road into Centralia, pictured just last week. It is buckled and broken from the fire which has raged in coal mine shafts under the town for the past 50 years. Tourists have left the graffiti on the road.
This is the road into Centralia, pictured just last week. It is buckled and broken from the fire which has raged in coal mine shafts under the town for the past 50 years. Tourists have left the graffiti on the road.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam

IT’S NOT COMPLETELY clear how the fire started, but most historical accounts hold that burning trash in a landfill near an abandoned strip mine ignited an exposed coal vein. The fire spread throughout a labyrinth of coal mines beneath the town, creating a giant underground inferno.

That was 50 years ago on May 27, 1962.

Half a century later, Centralia in Pennsylvania in the US still burns.

The once bustling coal-mining town — then home to over 2,000 people — is now a smouldering expanse of overgrown streets, cracked pavement and charred trees. Everywhere, streams of toxic gas spew into the air from hundreds of fissures in the ground.

Workers battled the fire for almost two decades, but all attempts to extinguish the massive blaze proved unsuccessful.

In 1981, amid growing health concerns over dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, Centralia’s plight was launched onto the US national radar when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole. Decades of intense underground heat was causing the pavement to crumble.

In the following years, Congress set aside more than $42 million to relocate residents. Abandoned houses were bulldozed to the ground. Some townspeople, however, refused to leave.

In 2010, the town’s last nine residents were fighting to keep the state from evicting them and demolishing their homes.

Experts say there is enough coal to fuel the fire for another 250 years.

This is what it looks like now (with some pictures at the end that show what it was like just before residents moved away…):

In pics: Tour the town that’s been burning for 50 years
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  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    A bird's-eye vie shows very few remaining buildings and swathes of brown vegetation. (Image: Google Earth)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Near the highway, a sign warns of the dangers ahead. (Image: Flickr/Max Edmands)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    There is some evidence of life by the town's edge. (Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mredden)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Another unwelcoming sign. (Image: Flickr/Proper Pictures)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    The underground fire caused roads to shift and buckle. (Image: Flickr/Proper Pictures)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    The branch of Route 61 that runs through the town was permanently closed when it became too expensive to repair. (Image: Wikipedia)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    The abandoned highway is now covered with graffiti.
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Smoke is seen rising from the cracked road. (Image: Wikipedia)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    The trees have been bleached white from the fumes. (Image: Flickr/Proper Pictures)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Old chairs rest in the foreground of a devastated landscape. (Image: Flickr/jesiehart)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    An abandoned drive-in movie theatre. (Image: Flickr/Proper Pictures)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    One of the few remaining homes in Centralia. Brick buttresses hold the walls up. Only a short distance away, coal fires still rage. (Image: Flickr/jesiehart)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    A church on a hillside overlooking Centralia is also still standing. (Image: Wikipedia)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    The ground is so hot that a match will light on contact. (Image from 'The Real Silent Hill' via Youtube)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    In this April 1981 file photo, US Bureau of Mines workers drop a thermometer through a hole on Main Street in Centralia to measure the heat from the shaft mine blaze that burned under the town. Compare the number of buildings in this picture to the previous photographs in this slideshow... (Image: AP Photo/Paul Vathis, File)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Dorothy and Charles Kowalchick leaving a voting station in Centralia in August 1983 when residents were asked if they wanted to stay in their homes or relocate. Both Kowalchicks had lived in Centralia their whole lives. They voted to relocate. (Image: AP Photo/Fred Prouser.)
  • On fire: Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

    Twelve-year-old Todd Domboski of Centralia, looking over a police barricade at the hole he fell through just hours before the photo was taken on 14 February, 1981. (Image: AP Photo)

- Dina Spector

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