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Pennsylvania Is Burning – What You Didn’t Know about Coal Seam Fires

February 3, 2014

fire safety

I saw the movie Silent Hill a few years ago, at the urging of some friends. I’m not a big movie person and to be honest, I thought it was really awful. Afterwards, my friends and I went out for coffee and someone mentioned that they’d used Centralia, Pennsylvania, as the inspiration for the movie location and that most of the town really was still on fire. I started thinking back to scenes in the movie and wondering if what my friend said was true…awful movie or not, it was fascinating to me to think that there was a place on fire and that it couldn’t be put out! Being a child of the internet generation, I immediately went home and started googling. It turns out that Centralia, PA, isn’t the only town in America battling this problem of a fire they can’t extinguish.

A little background: Centralia, PA, is an old coal mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania. Its roots in American history go as far back as the 1740s, and mining operations in the area started as early as 1856. There is no real agreement about how it happened, but it’s agreed upon that in 1962 a fire somehow started in the coal mines below the city, which eventually led to the US Congress relocating all of its citizens and, in 1992, the Pennsylvania governor condemning the area.

What happened in Centralia, as it turns out, has happened in other areas across the United States and around the World: a coal seam fire. Also known as a mine fire, this is a fire that starts in an underground coal deposit, many times in a coal mine, that has a vast supply of fuel and is extremely difficult to gain access to, making it almost impossible to put out. It is estimated that thousands of coal seam fires are burning at any given time across the globe.

There are two types of mine fires: near-surface fires and those in underground mines. In a near-surface fire the coal seam extends up to the ground surface, giving it plenty of access to oxygen (all fires require three things: an ignition source, a fuel source, and oxygen). Underground mine fires generally start in just that, underground mines. The coal gives them a seemingly endless supply of fuel, they’ve had something to get them started, and they get oxygen from the ventilation system that extends up to the surface. Coal seam fires can get started in a variety of natural and man-made ways. Some can self-ignite given the right conditions; others start because of forest fires or lightning. Many believe the Centralia, PA, fire was started because of someone burning garbage at the town landfill. The landfill was too close to the abandoned mines and the fire spread. Sometimes these fires are started because someone running an illegal mining operation has tried to blow a mine up.

While Centralia, PA, may be one of the better known coal seam fires, there are others that have been burning far longer. In fact, there are coal seam fires burning on every continent except Antarctica!

My research also clued me into something dubbed “The Gate to Hell” in Turkmenistan. In the early 1970s, scientists looking for natural gas accidentally caused a ground collapse under their drilling equipment. In an effort to burn off the natural gas, scientists lit the area on fire expecting it to burn off in a few days. Forty years later, the hole is still on fire and the photos are pretty impressive. You can check them out here. While not a coal seam fire, it’s still fascinating to learn about the types of fires burning all over the planet and how long they’ve been around!

For some good reading on the possible environmental impacts of coal seam fires, check out this article by Time Magazine.

For other information on coal seam fires, check out these great reads:

Article by: Kristen Skinner and April Green

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