Monday, July 12, 2010

The Fire Underground

Centralia, a small town about an hour southwest of Wilkes-Barre, PA, was founded in 1866, and was a thriving coal-country community, reaching a population of over 2,500 people by the mid-1960s. Today, fewer than a dozen remain. In 1962, while burning trash in the town landfill, an underground coal seam was ignited. Although the fire was thought to be extinguished, it remained burning underground, spreading through the mines which crisscrossed below the town. Over the years, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to extinguish the fire. Finally, in the early 1980s, when a number of sink holes and subsidences opened up, the true extent of the situation was discovered. Ultimately, the federal government purchased the land, and paid to relocate the residents. A handful of residents have remained in the town. Most of the buildings have been torn down, leaving an almost empty grid of streets and sidewalks.

I've made two visits to Centralia in the past year and a half. On my first visit, on January 1, 2009, rising smoke could clearly be seen in several areas, and patches of ground clear of snow told of the higher temperatures below.

I made another trip to Centralia this past Sunday to further explore the area. I ran into a film crew from The History Channel shooting footage for an upcoming program.

Route 61 was a four-lane highway heading south out of Centralia. After the roadway repeatedly cracked and buckled from the fire, approximately three quarters of a mile of the highway was closed, and a new two-lane road constructed to the east of the original road. Heading south on the closed section of highway, the road appears to be in serviceable, if unmaintained, condition. Grass and weeds have sprung up along the sides and in the center median, but the pavement is still intact.

About one half mile south of the northern end, you come across the first real signs of the damage caused by the fire. This fissure, some thirty feet long, one to two feet deep, and two to three feet wide, is evidence of the fire in the mountain below.

Continue another hundred yards south, and you see more damage - this section of roadway has buckled.

And everywhere on the roadway, you see graffiti - some of it profound, much of it profane.

Local riders use the section as part of their off-road trails around Centralia.

At the south end of the closed section, looking southward toward the open section of Route 61.

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