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Centralia, Pennsylvania: How an underground mine fire turned a thriving community into an eerie ghost town

By Courtney Barrow, AccuWeather staff writer
March 31, 2017, 11:47:10 AM EDT

On a search for one of Pennsylvania's more unique tourist attractions, two AccuWeather journalists stopped a man playing fetch with his dog in front of a garage along the side of the road.

"We're looking for Centralia," they asked.

Surrounded by open road, empty fields and a smattering of houses, the man said, "This is Centralia."

Centralia is known throughout Pennsylvania for its ongoing underground mine fire. The mines originally caught fire back in the 1960s, but the fire became too costly and widespread to be put out. Once a thriving mine town in the heart of Pennsylvania's coal country, Centralia has since diminished to a small community of just a handful of residents.

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This is an intersection in Centralia, where a thriving mine town used to be located.

Underground mine fires are common across the globe. Thousands occupy large swaths of land and can burn uncontrollably for many years. Australia's Burning Mountain is believed to have been burning for 6,000 years.

Now poisonous gases float out of the ground in Centralia, creating dangerous living conditions as the fire burns 300 feet underground and across 8 miles. Residents were relocated over the decades, leaving behind a unique tourist attraction.

Some estimates project that the fire will burn for 250 years, or until the flames run out of coal.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that China, as the world's largest producer of coal, can have anywhere between 10 million and 200 million metric tons (Mt) of coal reserves burned in coal fires every year.

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An eerie, abandoned and empty landscape is left behind after a mine fire burns underground since 1962.

Mine fires are believed to contribute to global warming as well, releasing greenhouse gases into the air like carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. The cost of putting them out, however, is high and they are very difficult to extinguish.

As of 2009, the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that more than $1 billion was either needed or had already been spent on fighting coal fires. Ninety percent of those projects are found in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

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Centralia is surrounded by mountains previously used for mining.

In the case of Centralia, it became too expensive to contain, so relocating residents was deemed the best option. In total, 1,100 residents were moved out of town. The area morphed into an eerie tourist destination with little more than a municipal building, a cemetery and an abandoned, graffiti-covered highway, which state police have since cracked down on to ward off trespassers.

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Smoke billowed out of the ground in Centralia, Pennsylvania, as a mine fire burned underground.

There's little left of Centralia but assorted litter, the left-behind art of passing through and vast stretches of empty land. But if some tourists are lucky, they might catch a glimpse of smoke wafting out of the ground, and know that, 300 feet below them, a decades-old coal fire continues to smolder.

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Graffiti runs rampant across much of Centralia. This was found near the smoking hole. A nearby graffiti highway was formerly a draw for tourists, but has recently been closed down to trespassers.

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