SMOKE RELATED ACCIDENTS
Hugh E. Mobley
This is a review of seven prescribed burns that resulted in
lawsuits due to accidents on the highway and smoke from the burn was claimed to
be the cause. Action that could have been taken to reduce the likelihood of an
accident is also discussed. (Escape fires are not included due to the fact that
no lives were lost and damage was not as great.)
April, 1990 - One Fatality
Georgia – Chopped logging debris of 80 acres was prescribe burned with a south wind ¾ mile north of the road and over a mile east of the accident site. A wildfire was also set on the north side of the road 1/4 mile from the accident site. It burned 40 acres. (Another fire was set on the south side of the road but did not spread and went out.) When the fire crew left, scattered smoke was still being blown north. Drainage was also to the north with calm winds during the night.
Cause – Fog
Litigation – Settled out of court for almost one million because of the company’s public relations problem.
November, 1990 – One fatality
Louisiana – A 150-acre burn of scattered logging debris was started at 9:30am with a southeast wind. Firing was completed about 1:30pm and mopped up until 4:00pm. Residual smoke was drifting toward the northwest. Forecast was for continued light southeast wind during the night. The interstate was 2 ½ miles south of the burn. The drainage from the burn area was also due south. All aspects of the State Smoke Management Guidelines were met.
At 10.30pm that night, an accident occurred on the interstate at another drainage, which was one-mile further west. One person was killed. There were no close weather stations that recorded hourly observations. The closest one to the east was 50 miles away and had southerly winds at 10:00 and 11:00pm. Another station about 50 miles west of accident area had southerly winds but the local “land-breeze” effect at night could have influenced the direction. Still another station 90 miles west had calm wind at 10:00 and north wind at 3mph at 11:00pm. After midnight, fog was recorded at all three weather stations.
There was however, a weather station just 3 miles away that took upper air measurements twice a day starting at the surface. The 6pm surface observation was a southeast wind and at 6am the next morning, a northeast wind. The claim was that the wind had shifted before ten to the northeast in time for smoke to reach the site of the accident.
Cause - Fog
Litigation – Landowner lost case. Amount is unknown
November, 1990 – Two
Alabama – Two small blocks of windrows with heavy fuel loading were burned - about 40 acres total in both blocks. Firing was completed around 1 pm. One block was east of the road ¼ mile and the other block was ¾ of a mile east of the road. The blocks were burned with a north wind carrying the smoke at an angle toward the highway one mile away. Some drift smoke reached the road but not enough to reduce the visibility. At night the residual smoke flowed down-drainage toward the north and away from the road.
An old, abandoned house ½ mile west of the road burned down completely during the night. The volunteer fire crew mopped up and left the area about 3 am. The area between the house and the road was open and level. On the west side of the house was a thick stand of trees and underbrush. The accident occurred between 7:00am and 7:30am the next morning. There was fog in the area and smoke could be smelled.
Cause - Smoke from the house and possibly fog which was in the general area.
Litigation – Due to the small cost and public relations,
the landowner paid the doctor and hospital bills as well as their salary for the
days they missed work.
November, 1991 – One Fatality and Injuries
Georgia – 450 acres of marsh grass was burned for duck habitat. The fuel was one year old. It was burned every year if possible. The area was next to a river and about ½ mile away from an Interstate. An east wind carried the smoke away from the Interstate. The burn was completed by 1:30pm and area was completely clear of all smoke (including residual smoke) within a few hours.
Weather stations reported fog during the night. The next morning, the area was covered by fog and a seven-vehicle accident occurred at the bridge.
Two years later, we decided to burn again and document using video cameras. 240 acres of the same area was burned, the maximum for which the state would issue a permit. (It was not burned the preceding year because of the pending lawsuits). Consequently, the area had two years of fuel. It was documented using three video cameras. Pictures were also taken periodically during the night. The weather conditions were very similar and the burn was completed at about the same time as the previous burn.
After the burn, there was little residual smoke and in less than two hours, the area was completely clear of all smoke. No smoke reached the road at any time and heavy fog was present from midnight until after daylight.
Cause - Fog
Litigation - Lawsuits were for over a million dollars. Due to documentation of the second burn, they were settled out of court and the company agreed to pay only for the cost of preparing and shipping the legal immigrant’s body back home and associated fees - $130,000.
November, 1998 - One Permanent Injury
Georgia – Site preparation burn of 260 acres with less than 200 feet adjacent to a state highway. Wind was from the northwest during the day. After dark, the wind shifted to the west and became generally calm.
Signs were placed on the road and the area patrolled until 11:00pm with no sign of smoke on the road at any time. Signs were left in place,
About 4:00am, two cars wrecked, went into the ditch and one burned. A semi-truck (TT), stopped to help but left vehicle in road and another Semi-truck ran into it. A deputy coming to investigate the accident ran into the second truck.
Area weather stations recorded fog beginning at midnight and continuing until after daylight.
Cause – Fog - - - (and probably smoke from car that burned)
Litigation – Settled out of court – final outcome is
March, 2000 - One minor injury
Alabama – Most of a 2300-acre “bird-land” tract with a one-year rough was burned in one day using two four-wheelers. Because of drought conditions, the county had been under a “no-burn” until a few days before the burn. A strip next to road where a creek crossed was burned first.
That night, scattered fog was observed in low areas. Around midnight, a wreck occurred one mile from the burn. The drainage was thick with trees and underbrush whereas the area to the site of the wreck was open and generally level. Person in charge was certified.
Litigation – Went to trial and landowner won.
December, 2000 – Two Fatalities and Many Serious Injuries
Florida – A small ten-acre block was burned ¼ mile from an Interstate. Forecast Dispersion Index for that day was only 37 and temperature was 72. The burn was completed by 1:00pm. The crew patrolled and did some mopping up, leaving at 5:00pm. A few stumps were still smoking. . Plan was to patrol all night, but – it did not occur. At 7:00pm, they were advised to put out signs, which was done. (Two days later, some residual smoke was still being produced.) Person in charge was certified.
A weather station, 2 ½ miles from the burn, recorded “mist” at 11:00pm and “smoke” from midnight until daylight. Multiple accidents occurred around 2:00am.
Cause – Residual Smoke
Litigation – Some cases settled but the outcome is unknown.
September 2006 – Two Fatalities & Two Serious Injuries
Alabama – About 100 acres of scattered logging debris was burned about one-third of a mile south of a four-lane highway. (The permit was only for 30 acres.) The landowner, doing his own burning, was not certified. The slight drainage was to the west and south but the south side of the burn was a solid wall of trees and brush. The highway was about ten feet higher than the average height of the burn area. (A small part of the burn area was the same elevation.)
Wind was calm and no fog was reported during the night. The “smoke prone” area was a river four miles west of the accident site. Before the accidents, (around 4:00am), a driver called 911 and reported a thick wall of smoke at the location where the accidents later occurred. Witnesses reported no fog east or west of the accident site.
Later that morning, Pictures were taken from the air showing the wreck and burn area with one area still smoking. Four days after the burn, pictures were taken from the ground showing many spots throughout the burn area still smoking.
Cause – Residual Smoke spreading into open areas
Litigation - Pending
At least eight other smoke-related accidents occurred during 1991 to 1998 in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida that I am aware of have but I do not have enough information to list them. And - there have certainly been many more that I am not aware of.
Even so, it appears that the major problem is still residual smoke flowing down-drainage or into adjacent open areas. When burning close to any highway, take steps to document (including pictures), your smoke direction and distance in case any accidents occur close by as the result of fog. Check the area at dusk and again after dark. If you see a potential problem, get on your cell phone and get help to block the road as soon as possible including the highway department and the local sheriff.
DON’T FORGET TO TAKE PICTURES!