50 years ago what started as a simple fire to clean up the town dump for Memorial Day turned into a fire the burnt down almost every building in the town supposedly killing 1400 people. What makes this fire unbelievable is that this fire is still burning today.
Centralia was a coal mining town that peaked around 1890 with a population of 2800 residents. By about 1950 the town was declining as mining jobs moved elsewhere due to a drop in the coal demand. None the less, the town remained a pleasant spot along Route 61 where families lived happily.
In an attempt to clean up for Memorial Day, the town’s fire department set the dump/landfill alight on May 27, 1962. From this day the town would never be the same. The fire that was above an old strip mining pit ignited an exposed coal seam. The fire spread to the town and through a network of underground mines where it remains, still burning, today.
By the 1920’s the fire began to present a health risk to the towns surviving residents as carbon monoxide gas seeped into homes and dangerous sinkholes formed. Eventually the decision was made to evacuate the town. In a 42 million dollar relocation program about 1000 people were relocated and the town’s structures demolished.
A handful of people opted to stay behind and ‘fight for their homes’ believing that the fires pose no real danger to them. The state is now trying to remove these last remaining people but they are standing their ground; “these people want to pay their taxes and be left alone and live where they choose!"
The anniversary of the day this fire started is one that will not easily be forgotten by those who were forced to evacuate nor by those who remain living just above this underground fire.
All attempts to control this fire have so far been in vain. One cannot help but wonder whether, if the fire departments of the 1890’s had been equipped with better fire protection equipment, this could have been avoided. Nowadays mines should be equipped with the correct fire protection engineering solutions – from fire sprinklers to fire pumps – to ensure that fires cannot grow so completely out of control.