A fatal crash involving more than a dozen vehicles on the Mountain Parkway in Powell County happened Wednesday morning as smoke from a forest fire limited visibility on the road, authorities said.
The crash happened about 8:45 a.m. on the westbound side of the parkway, about a mile east of the Slade exit. The road was closed most of the day but reopened in both directions at 6:45 p.m., said Steve Asbury, emergency manager for Powell County.
Authorities said smoke and fog combined to cause low visibility that contributed to the wreck.
“It was just a very bad situation in regards to visibility,” said Powell County Coroner David “Hondo” Hearne. “The only thing I can compare it to is flying through a cloud.”
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The state traffic operations center reported that 13 vehicles were involved in the crash, said H.B. Elkins, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet.
Several cars or trucks slammed into the rear of a vehicle in front of them in a chain reaction.
Hearne identified the man who died in the pileup as Charles Turner, 65, of Breathitt County, who was driving a coal truck.
Turner had gotten out of his truck, possibly to check on another driver, and was struck by a vehicle on the road and killed, Hearne said.
Asbury said 14 or 15 people involved in the wreck were transported to area hospitals for treatment. Ambulance crews and firefighters from several other counties responded to help with the wreck.
The Powell County dispatch office had received a call about smoke from a fire obscuring the road just before the crash was reported, according to the office.
A large fire was burning in the Daniel Boone National Forest near the site of the wreck, said Danny McCormick, a county official.
“Apparently there was zero visibility there,” McCormick said.
Marie Walker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said one blaze in the Daniel Boone National Forest near Slade was caused by an illegal campfire.
There was another fire in the area on private land. In addition, the wind has pulled in smoke from fires farther away, and fog had mixed with smoke, she said.
The Forest Service has banned campfires in the Red River Gorge except in Koomer Ridge campground, but officials have discovered the sites of more than 100 illegal abandoned fires since the ban started, Walker said.
Photos from the area on social media showed the road immersed in clouds early Wednesday. The National Weather Service in Louisville said there had been reports of zero visibility in the area.
Parts of Kentucky have been blanketed in smoke off and on for more than two weeks as drought conditions make the woods ripe for wildfires.
Highway crews had put out electronic message boards on the Mountain Parkway last week to warn of potential limited visibility because of smoke, Elkins said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 260 fires had burned across 44,000 acres of private or state land since late October, mostly in the southeastern and northeastern parts of the state, according to Kentucky Emergency Management.
Firefighters were working on 23 fires at midday Wednesday, said Jennifer Turner, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
There had been 30 more fires in the Daniel Boone National Forest affecting about 1,000 acres, Walker said.
There had been no serious injuries or deaths associated with the fires before Wednesday, said Buddy Rogers, spokesman for Kentucky Emergency Management.
Authorities cautioned people that driving conditions can change quickly in the vicinity of fires.
“It could be clear one minute, and the next minute there could be a shift in the wind” that pushes smoke across the road, Rogers said.