Smoke From Forest Fires Blamed In Fatal Collision

Posted: November 08, 1987

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Smoke from forest fires was blamed for a collision between a chartered and a stalled pickup on the West Virginia Turnpike early yesterday in which one person was killed, state police said.

"It happened so fast. There was a truck in the road with no lights and the driver tried to swerve to keep from hitting him," said bus passenger Otha Robinson, 49, of Columbus, Ohio.

"We went off the embankment and the next thing I know we were just going down the hill crashing into trees and things," Robinson said.

The incident came during what firefighters described as "a hellacious weekend" battling wind-fanned forest fires in more than a dozen parched Southern states cloaked by a thick haze of pungent smoke.

Passengers on the bus said it was "extremely smoky" on the highway near Beckley in the southern part of West Virginia.

Killed was 12-year-old Emory Davis of Pearisburg, Va., who was traveling in the pickup with his father, Carl. The boy had been flagging down traffic and was crushed between the bus and a trailer hitched to the truck, said Sgt. Don Sizemore of the State Turnpike police. The father was unhurt.

Twenty-three of the 47 people on the charter bus were taken to Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley, said Trooper C.R. Shaffer. The bus was carrying a Columbus church choir to North Carolina.

Most of the injured suffered broken bones, bruises and cuts, said choir official Florene Solomon.

As firefighters prayed for rain by today, smoke from the blazes cut visibility to as low as three miles in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and western Virginia, the National Weather Service said.

Foresters blamed the fires on the region's dry weather, wind, falling leaves and arsonists. Without rain, said Mississippi Forestry Commission spokesman Bill Colvin, "it's going to be a hellacious weekend."

From Texas to Virginia, more than 121,000 acres have burned in 8,018 fires in 11 days, the U.S. Forest Service said.

That didn't include West Virginia, which is outside the Forest Service's 13-state Southern Region. Damage to its 17 southern counties would bring the total to more than 250,000 acres.

Authorities have reported no serious injuries to firefighters.

The worst spots in the South were Tennessee and Kentucky, said Terry Lewis, spokesman for the Forest Service in Atlanta.

Fire was burning across 1,900 acres in Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest, and Kentucky firefighters were dealing with a blaze over 10,000 acres at the Daniel Boone National Forest, Lewis said.

The Kentucky fires could be smelled as far away as Charleston, S.C., authorities said.

In Tennessee, a 5,000-acre fire that threatened residents of Speedwell, near the Kentucky line in Claiborne County, was contained Friday night, said Mary Locker, spokeswoman for the state Conservation Department.

Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia issued bans on outdoor burning, and similar bans were in effect in 24 North Carolina counties and 52 Alabama counties.

Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt estimated Friday that the state already had lost $1 million in timber to the fires.

"Our firefighters are already fatigued. And we don't know what lies between now and Sunday evening, when we're being given the best chance for rain," said Bill Moody, Alabama state forester.

In West Virginia, where foresters estimated damages at $41 million early yesterday, an estimated 50,000 acres burned Thursday.

About 11,200 acres were lost to 110 fires Friday, when Gov. Arch Moore

closed forests in 14 counties to the public.

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