Over the years, there have been numerous ideas about when and how the Centralia mine fire began. Below are the three most often cited theories.
#1 – Illegal Dump Cleanup
The current prevailing theory is that the fire began on May 27, 1962 when the town’s landfill was purposely set on fire in an effort to clean it up. With the approach of Memorial Day, the borough wanted to cut down on the smell and mess in the landfill. The dump was located in an abandoned strip mine near the Odd Fellows Cemetery at the end of town.
Local firefighters were hired to set the trash on fire, and then extinguish it. The fire, however, burned more deeply than they expected. This made it difficult to put out. The firefighters were forced to return a few days later, and they attempted to extinguish it again. Unfortunately, they were too late as the fire has crept into a hidden mine opening at the edge of the landfill.
In his book, Fire Underground, David DeKok strongly supports this idea. He states that while there are other competing theories about how the mine fire began, these are simply confusing tales started by individuals to hide their knowledge of the initial dump fire. Because such fires were prohibited by Pennsylvania, there was a strong motive to keep its true beginnings hushed.
It’s important to note that while there is record of the borough authorizing the dump cleanup, the method for doing so is never mentioned. That said, in DeKok’s interviews with the firemen, they agreed that the common practice at the time was to cleanup a landfill by setting it on fire.
#2 – Accidental Trash Fire
Another common idea is that the Centralia, Pennsylvania mine fire began after an accidental trash fire in the landfill near the Odd Fellows Cemetery. According to this theory, an unknown trash hauler dumped a load of garbage containing hot embers in the landfill sometime around May 26, 1962. The embers ignited the trash in the dump and started a fire. Firefighters later attempted to extinguish this over the next few days. But it was too late. The fire had already entered the abandoned mine opening at the edge of the landfill.
This theory has been quite popular over the years as it doesn’t place the blame for the mine fire on any specific person. It also fits well with the known timeline of events. Though, without any firm evidence of hot embers or of someone dumping trash the day before the fire began, there isn’t much to support this theory.
#3 – Old Mine Fire Rekindled
Mine fires were not a new occurrence in Pennsylvania in 1962. There had been others in the same area previously. Some hold the theory that one of these older fires kept smoldering for years in the abandoned mines near Centralia. It was only on May 27, 1962 that this old fire emerged at the landfill near the Odd Fellows Cemetery. As with the accidental trash fire theory, there is little hard evidence to prove that the mine fire was actually a remnant of an older one.
Given how much time has passed and the fact that many of those alive in the early days of the fire are now deceased, we may never know the truth of the Centralia mine fire’s origin with certainty. However given DeKok’s years of research and interviews, it does seem highly likely that the town authorized the fire which would be its undoing.