As Centralia's fires smolder, residents hang on Four decades since the smoke moved in, 21 folks still call a Pa. town home.

Posted: March 18, 2001

CENTRALIA, Pa. — Almost 10 percent of Centralia's populace gathered in Mayor Lamar Mervine's living room Thursday to discuss the latest U.S. census figures.

In toto, the gathering consisted of Mervine and his wife, Lanna.

The census counters might have been surprised to find anyone in Centralia.

Despite an underground coal fire that has been burning for 39 years now, just-released 2000 census figures show 21 stubborn people still living in this Pennsylvania coal-country town whose plight has attracted curiosity seekers and national attention.

State and Columbia County officials have been trying to evacuate Centralians for 20 years because of the fire, the smoky fumes that billow out of the ground, and concern that burned-out coal veins might cause the earth to open up and swallow the town.

In 1992, the state, under its power of eminent domain, condemned properties in the two-square-mile borough. Some residents took the money offered and left. The Mervines and others refused.

Asked Thursday if he'd ever leave, Mervine, 85, answered: "Not voluntarily."

He did volunteer for something - to replace the former mayor, who left town in 1993. Mervine has since won reelection twice, because, his wife said, "nobody else wants the job."

That's not surprising. Census figures indicate Centralia isn't going to count for anything much longer. The population is down from 63 in 1990 - and approximately 1,100 in 1962, when a Memorial Day weekend trash fire ignited a blaze in an abandoned coal mine.

Like Mervine, most of the folks staying put are in their 60s or older. There are no children, no schools, no stores, no activities, no future.

The fire that once burned beneath the heart of the town has moved outward, to the perimeter, taking with it the smoke and haze that once clouded the center of Centralia.

The air in the center of town is now clear and odorless - an atmospheric normalcy that lends a Twilight Zone eerieness to this ghost town. One can walk through the neighborhoods of Centralia (where street signs remain intact) and find only 15 houses standing snaggle-tooth on blocks dominated by grassy lots that have been stripped of houses.

At least four of the 15 homes are vacant and listed for demolition by the state, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Under eminent domain, the remaining residents - who pay no property tax - could be removed.

But no one's had the stomach for it.

"Someone fairly high up thinks there might be political fallout," said Bill Klink, director of the Columbia County Redevelopment Association.

At the thought of ordering evictions, television and newspaper images of state troopers dragging old folks out of their homes flash before the eyes of state officials. Far better, Klink thinks, that the officials wait until the holdouts die out.

Mervine, however, believes the state is trying to scare them out.

"That fire's been burning for 39 years, and there's never been a casualty of any kind," he said, sitting in the homey living room of what once was his parents' home, too. He thinks the fire will roll toward an underground aquifer and be doused.

As for the smoke and fumes, "we've got better air here than they have in Harrisburg," he declared.

He believes it's all a conspiracy.

"They're not worried about us one bit," Mervine said. "The only thing is the borough owns the mineral rights. If they get everybody out of town, they're going to grab the mineral rights. There's 40 million tons of coal under this town. They'll strip the whole place.

"They could put the fire out anytime, but they're not interested in the fire. They want us out of here."

Yeah, right, Klink says.

"We all know what a valuable resource coal is," Klink said. "My answer is that if the U.S. government wanted to get that coal away from you, they'd have done it in less than 20 years, believe me."

Nor does he buy residents' claim that they're in no danger.

"They've been very lucky," he said, "so far."

By eerie coincidence, many of the sites where smoke rises out of the ground abut the cemeteries that ring the town. (In Centralia, the quick are vastly outnumbered by the dead.) Smoke also hisses from huge cracks in a section of old Route 61 that state officials had to close and build a bypass around. And the sight of all the empty lots and blocks where homes once stood is itself unnerving.

"It's a little scary now," acknowledged Mervine, who spends most of his time caring for his wife. "There are so few homes, and they're pretty well scattered. I'd like to have a few neighbors."

The municipal building, with its doors locked and its lights out, sits nearby. Except for an ambulance and a fire truck in the garage, there was nothing and no one to be seen there the other day.

When there's a fire or an ambulance call, Mervine said, emergency personnel respond from surrounding communities. And the state police patrols the town.

Tacked up in the unmanned firehouse is a yellowing resolution adopted by the fire and ambulance companies in 1984.

"Be it further resolved," it reads, "that these organizations are committed to remaining in the Borough of Centralia as long as people remain."

That wouldn't appear to be much longer.

Marc Schogol's e-mail address is mschogol@phillynews.com.

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