Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Alexia. Alexia Wonders, “When will Centralia, Pennsylvania stop burning?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Alexia!

Do you know what to do in case of a fire? Fire safety is very important, and we hope that you have learned what to do if you ever see a fire. If you can call the fire department, that’s great. But you should always focus on getting to a safe place as quickly as possible first.

Some people may be tempted to try to put out a fire on their own. In most cases, though, it’s best to let trained firefighting professionals handle that job. They have special training and know just how to put out every type of fire.

For example, some people might think that every fire can be put out with water. But that’s not true! Some types of fires, such as grease fires in kitchens, can actually be made worse if water is thrown on them. These fires may need to be put out with something else, such as flour or special chemicals found in fire extinguishers.

Of course, not all fires can be put out. Sometimes they get so large so quickly that it’s impossible to fight them with the usual methods. One example is forest fires. They can quickly spread to such a large area that there aren’t enough firefighters close by to be able to battle them effectively. They may need to burn until they run out of fuel and die out on their own.

There is another type of fire that is often impossible to put out. Would you believe that there’s a small town in Pennsylvania that has been on fire for over 50 years? It’s true. The town is Centralia, Pennsylvania. An underground fire burning in coal seams beneath the town has been burning since 1962!

If you were to visit Centralia today, you wouldn’t find much. The entire town was evacuated several decades ago. Only a few diehard residents are still there. The empty buildings and lonely streets are the only monument to what happened there (and is still happening underground).

If you go to certain areas of the town, you can still find areas where smoke seeps up from deep beneath the surface. The ground in these areas is also warm to the touch. Most of the areas of the town are considered unsafe to live in due to fears of toxic gases seeping up from below the ground. There are also worries that large areas will cave in as the fires underground make the ground above unstable.

How did this fire start? Centralia sits atop a vast network of underground coal mines. Back in 1962, the town decided to set the local landfill on fire to burn trash. They believed this would reduce the amount of space the trash was taking up.

They thought they had extinguished the landfill fire, but it kept burning deep below the surface of the trash. No one could see it. The fire burned downward and eventually went underground. There, it met a great source of fuel: the leftover mine shafts which still opened up onto veins of anthracite coal.

Anthracite coal is known for burning for long periods of time at extremely hot temperatures. Experts estimate the fires under Centralia could burn at temperatures over 500º F and at depths of over 300 feet deep. In addition to baking the layers of soil above the fires and releasing poisonous fumes into the air, the fires also caused the ground to be extremely unstable in areas. Sometimes, holes open up that are large enough to swallow people or even cars!

50 years may seem like a long time. However, experts believe the fires under Centralia could burn another 250 years before they exhaust the coal supply that fuels them. Why don’t firemen simply put them out? They can’t!

The fires are too deep and burn too hot to be fought effectively. Several different firefighting methods were tried over the years, but they all failed. Ultimately, letting the fires burn became an economic decision. It was simply too expensive to try to keep fighting the fires. It was cheaper just to abandon the town.

Centralia’s is an incredibly interesting story, but it’s far from unique. Would you believe that scientists believe that there are upwards of 200 or more such underground coal mine fires burning in the United States alone? If you add up such fires in other major coal-producing countries, like China and India, underground coal mine fires around the world probably number in the thousands!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.7, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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