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Pennsylvania town marks 50 years since underground fire began

It's an anniversary the few remaining souls who live here won't be celebrating.

Fifty years ago today, a fire at the town dump ignited an exposed coal seam, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the demolition of nearly every building in Centralia -- a whole community of 1,400 simply gone.

All these decades later, the Centralia fire still burns. It also maintains its grip on the popular imagination, drawing visitors from around the world who come to gawk at twisted, buckled Route 61, at the sulfurous steam rising intermittently from ground that's warm to the touch, at the empty, lonely streets where nature has reclaimed what coal-industry money once built.

It's a macabre story that has long provided fodder for books, movies and plays -- the latest one debuting in March at a theater in New York.

Yet, to the handful of residents who still occupy Centralia, who keep their houses tidy and their lawns mowed, this borough in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania is no sideshow attraction. It's home, and they'd like to keep it that way.

"That's all anybody wanted from day one," said Tom Hynoski, who's among the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit aimed at blocking the state of Pennsylvania from evicting them.

Centralia was already a coal-mining town in decline when the fire department set the town's landfill ablaze on May 27, 1962, in an ill-fated attempt to tidy up for Memorial Day. The fire wound up igniting the coal outcropping and, over the years, spread to the vast network of mines beneath homes and businesses, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes.

After a contentious battle over the future of the town, the side that wanted to evacuate won out. By the end of the 1980s, more than 1,000 people had moved and 500 structures demolished under a $42 million federal relocation program.

But some holdouts refused to go -- even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s. They said the fire posed little danger to their part of town, accused government officials and mining companies of a plot to grab the rights to billions of dollars' worth of anthracite coal, and vowed to stay put.

After years of letting them be, state officials decided a few years ago to take possession of the homes. The state Department of Community and Economic Development said Friday it's in negotiations with one of the five remaining homeowners; the others are continuing to resist, pleading their case in federal court.

Tim Altares, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that while temperatures in monitoring boreholes are down -- possibly indicating the fire has followed the coal seam deeper underground -- the blaze still poses a threat because it has the potential to open new paths for deadly gases to reach remaining homes.