Officials investigate smog accidents

Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 11:42 p.m.
Authorities are investigating whether smoggy conditions from a controlled burn in Levy County that left 23 motorists stranded and caused four accidents on U.S. 19 on Jan. 21 could have been avoided.
A fog stretching over the southwestern part of Levy County was so dense that Shands at the University of Florida rescue helicopters were grounded, according to Capt. Chuck Bastak, a spokesman for the Levy County Sheriff's Office.
Smoke from the Jan. 20 500-acre burn at the Goethe State Forest combined with fog to create a heavy layer of smog, reducing visibility to a quarter-mile, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.
A Levy County deputy called to the scene of the accidents along U.S. 19 reported that tractor-trailers and other traffic were blinded by the smog and inadvertently headed northbound in the southbound lane, according to a Sheriff's Office report.
One accident at 5:50 p.m. left a 48-year-old Williston man critically injured, FHP said. He is now in stable condition at Shands at the University of Florida.
Neither a detour or signs warning motorists about the smog were set up before the day-long burn began at the forest's boundary line less than a quarter-mile from the roadway, reports said.
But Gary Beecham, a supervisor with the Division of Forestry, said that burn workers placed signs on the road before the burn. He said they may have not been visible because of the dense fog.
Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Highway Patrol say the Division of Forestry did not notify them about the burn before the accident.
"We are usually never contacted," said Gina Busscher, a spokeswoman for the FDOT. "We probably need to set up some sort of notification system," she said.
Florida law does not require that the state's Division of Forestry notify law enforcement officials before a burn. Busscher said, however, that the U.S. Department of Forestry contacts her agency before burning in the Osceola National Forest. As a result, flashing signs are placed on both sides of nearby U.S. 90.
The Sheriff's Office was notified, but Bastak said there was no particular reason to single-out U.S. 19, since the entire area was covered with fog.
After the accidents, FHP set up a detour and DOT placed flashing signs along the road to alert drivers about the smoke and fog. FHP left the flashing signs on the road for the rest of the weekend.
Beecham said burn workers did not anticipate the need to contact law enforcement agencies or the DOT.
Weather conditions for the burn on Jan. 20 indicated a westward wind that would push the smoke away from U.S. 19, Beecham said. The prediction turned out to be wrong.
"Things do change, it's not a perfect science," Beecham said, explaining that the wind apparently died down.
Before lighting the first match for controlled burns, certified burners assess weather conditions and identify vulnerable areas, including schools, hospitals and highways, Beecham said. Burns are more effective and least damaging to the ecosystem during the winter season, he said.
The controlled burns, which reduce fuel loads and protect against the spread of wildfires, have ignited controversy in the past. In 2001, the coordination of local government agencies was questioned after two separate pileups on U.S. 301 in Alachua County were attributed to smoke from controlled burns.
This year, the Division of Forestry plans on burning about 15,000 acres at Goethe State Forest.
Weather permitting, burning at the forest will be conducted every day through the first week of March.
Meredith Mandell can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or

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