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Centralia is in Pennsylvania’s western middle anthracite field, a large synclinorium in Columbia and Schuylkill Counties. Centralia residents set fire to a landfill at the edge of town in 1962, thereby igniting the Buck Mountain coal bed. Laurel Run is in Pennsylvania’s northern anthracite field, on the northwest-dipping limb of the Wyoming Valley syncline. In 1915, a miner’s abandoned carbide lamp started a fire at Laurel Run, igniting the Red Ash, Top Red Ash, and Bottom Ross coal beds.

The Centralia and Laurel Run fires are burning out of control. Subsidence and the venting of toxic gases have destroyed large sections of each community. Because the Centralia fire started in the hinge zone of an anticline separating two synclines in the Western Middle Field, it spread in four directions. The Laurel Run fire occurred on one limb of a syncline, limiting its spread to two directions. At Centralia, the steeper-dipping beds permitted the fire to reach a greater depth more rapidly than at Laurel Run. In addition, the point of origin and steeper dip at Centralia make this fire more difficult to control, even though only one coal bed is burning.

A historical and sociological comparison of both communities shows that the people of Laurel Run had greater access to political power and more experience as a community in dealing with crises. Laurel Run secured more government support in combating the fire than Centralia did and so emerged from the fire as a more socially intact community. The present state of each fire further underscores how different geologic settings and social conditions can lead to different outcomes.

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