Centralia in Pennsylvania is too hot for most, but not all, reports Ian Brodie

Diehards of burning town refuse to be smoked out


A FIRE has been burning under this small town for the past 38 years, but the remaining old-timers just laugh at officials who say that they must leave for their own safety.

Defying all efforts to quench its flames, the smouldering inferno has been eating through the rich seams of anthracite in the abandoned coalmines around Centralia, Pennsylvania, since 1962. Most of the houses have been knocked down, along with the shops, post office, churches and bars because of the fire.

Clouds of steam and smoke billow from the craggy hillside on the edge of town where the fire is near the surface. A pungent smell of sulphur fills the air. In places, the ground is hot to the touch. The main road into town has buckled from the heat.

Over the years, 1,200 townspeople have taken the Government's offer of resettlement money and left. Close to 600 properties have been razed. However, 35 courageous or perhaps just stubborn souls stay on with their memories. Their scattered homes stand alone in open spaces that were once busy streets.

This month the battle for final control of Centralia will enter a new phase. The State of Pennsylvania, eager to wipe Centralia off the map, will consider more forcible action to evict the stragglers. It has invoked its powers to claim ownership of all the land and the houses on it.

The defiant residents, meanwhile, have petitioned other towns in the surrounding valleys to join them in opposing the state's claims.

This ploy was devised by Centralia's mayor, Lamar Mervine, a flinty former miner who, at 83, says that the fight is keeping him young.

From his kitchen, Mr Mervine and his wife can clearly see the slow burn belching from the ground about 250 yards distant. He scoffs at warnings about the hazards of sink-holes or poisonous gases.

"That's as close as the fire will come," he said. He explained that, having advanced on the town from over the hill for nearly a mile, the burn has reached a point where the coal seam falls sharply away from the surface to a flooded mine 400ft below, where the flames finally meet their end.

Centralia's diehards are unanimous in their belief that the authorities want them gone so that they can bulldoze the remaining homes and start strip mining perhaps as much as 40 million tons of anthracite, the most valuable of coals.

Gary Greenfield, supervising geologist with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Abandoned Mines, said: "It's just ridiculous. There's coal everywhere in that region. The Government wouldn't go through all this effort just to get its hands on some coal."

Mr Greenfield disputed the view that the fire could veer away from Centralia and said that he could not rule out a catastrophic land collapse. When the fire started at the town dump, no one paid much attention. Then it ignited clumps of anthracite poking through the soil. When the authorities took charge, it was too late. Much effort and more than 2.5 million were expended on assorted plans to douse the fire but none worked.

Reckoning that it could last for 100 years, the powers-that-be changed tack in the 1980s and set aside 26 million to relocate the population in anticipation of a disaster, sparked, some believe, by an event that happened long ago. Local legend has it that more than 100 years ago a band of rebel Irish miners beat up a priest in Centralia. They say that in revenge he climbed into his pulpit and uttered a terrible curse on the town: that it should burn in hell for ever.

Ian Brodie, The Times: World News
Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd