Stacy Cook-Cooper said her property is still smoldering, three days after a controlled burn nearby led to a small wildfire that, officials say, may have been the source of Wednesday morning’s deadly pileup on a rural stretch of Interstate 16 in Laurens County.
“Those folks didn’t know what hit them,” said Cook-Cooper, who lives less than a mile away, in an almost perpendicular line, from where 27 cars, pickups and tractor-trailers collided, leaving four dead. “The fog had that smoke trapped. There was nowhere for it to go.”
Georgia Forestry Commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett said Friday that the wildfire — which spread onto Cook-Cooper’s property — was ignited by embers from a controlled burn on an adjacent 100-acre tract of land. Officials suspect the landowner may have burned beyond what the permit allowed, Burnett said.
Cook-Cooper, who lives in a trailer surrounded by groves of pine trees, said a neighbor alerted her to the fire in her front yard. Firefighters doused the blaze, but Cook-Cooper said even then she was worried about it re-igniting.
“They told me not to worry,” she said. “If it starts back, it’ll head towards I-16 and away from my house.”
The fire didn’t re-start, but the smoke lingered through the night and into Wednesday morning.
Cook-Cooper left her home in tiny Montrose at 7:15 that morning, relying on her familiarity with the terrain to navigate the soupy lair.
“You couldn’t see squat,” she said. “It was like driving through a gallon of white milk. It was foggy, but I’ve never seen fog like this before. It had to be the smoke.”
Georgia State Patrol investigators say they have yet to reach any conclusions about what caused the deadly chain reaction on I-16 westbound that stretched nearly a quarter-mile.
“Some people say it was the smoke, some say it was the fog,” said Sgt. Ken Deloach, commander of the Georgia State Patrol’s Dublin post. It could be months before the GSP has an answer, he said, though it appears likely both smoke and fog were to blame.
Such “super fogs” are not unprecedented. In January 2008, 70 drivers on I-4 in central Florida collided after encountering what Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff Grady Judd described as “a wall of smoke and fog.” Five people died and 38 sustained injuries in the accident, which was blamed on an prescribed burn that lacked the proper surveillance, according to news accounts.
Officials have not yet decided whether or not to charge the landowner who obtained the permit for the controlled burn that started the wildfire in Montrose. Burnett said if negligence is proven, the landowner could be charged with a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $1,000 or 12 months in prison.