Smoke from a fire west of Apex reduced visibility to near zero Thursday morning, causing huge clouds of smoke to swirl into the sky and several accidents.
The smoke was caused by a mulch pile that had been ablaze for several days, law enforcement officers said.
The smoke seemed to take over a large swath of land at Green Level West, Green Level Church, White Oak Church, Jenks and Wimberly roads, west of the N.C. 540 toll road and north of U.S. 64.
Sgt. Michael Dorsey of the State Highway Patrol said Raleigh-based SunCon-Suncoast Contracting had been clearing land for a new subdivision on Green Level Church Road. The company had been grinding up tress and stumps into a pile of mulch and burning them, Dorsey said.
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“It smoldered,” he said. “And that created all the smoke that we had out there.”
Todd Hamilton, owner and CEO of SunCon-Suncoast Contracting, said the combination of low-lying land, dead air and fog created the dense smoke.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” said Hamilton, reached by phone in Florida on Thursday afternoon. “It just caught us.”
No charges will be filed against the company, Dorsey said.
Apex Fire Marshal Karl Huegerich said it’s a violation of town code to openly burn construction materials or debris that has been cleared at construction sites. He said he had been told by the company that there had been a plan to haul the materials away by truck, but at some point, a decision was made to burn the materials instead.
But Hamilton said the materials were burned outside Apex town limits, which is legal. He said the company typically hauls the materials off site, but because of the weather and the time of year, it was difficult to find someone to do the job on short notice.
Still, Hamilton said he doesn’t want to create hazardous situations for other people.
“I’d prefer this have been handled differently, and next time it will be,” he said. “From now on, honestly, in these sorts of conditions, we have to be better about predictability.”
The accident caused disruptions for nearby residents and commuters. Weather officials had advised that fog would be thick in some places Thursday morning, adding to the rush-hour complications.
State troopers arrived in the area after several crashes were caused by the low visibility. There were at least six reported collisions that ranged from single-vehicle accidents in a ditch to multi-car collisions. No injuries were reported, Dorsey said.
I’ve heard of smoke rolling in from a forest fire or whatever else, but never anything like this.
“As the morning rush picked up, that’s when it really became a problem,” said Lt. Steve Wilkins, of the Cary police department’s traffic safety team. “You couldn’t even see past the hood of your car.”
Adam Kamm, 30, was driving his 2-year-old daughter to daycare before heading to work in Cary when he hit the wall of smoke and got into an accident with an oncoming car. Kamm said he called 911 immediately, but it took more than an hour for first-responders to reach them.
A video Kamm took of the crash scene about 7:30 a.m. shows visibility was reduced to about 6 or 7 feet.
He said no one was hurt in the crash, even though his daughter was scared. Some nearby residents heard the accident and let them take shelter in their home, Kamm said.
“They said they had actually been smelling smoke for about five days from people burning stumps or mulch or whatever,” he said. “I’ve heard of smoke rolling in from a forest fire or whatever else, but never anything like this.”
Kamm’s wife, Kristen, got caught in the smoke separately later that morning. She said she pulled over to the side of the road until police showed up and led her and other drivers out in a convoy.
“I will say, I can’t remember the last time I was that scared,” she wrote in an email. “I literally was blind trying to drive a car.”
Apex and Morrisville firefighters could not reach the source of the fire via fire truck because it was deep in a wooded area, Wilkins said.
Dorsey said SunCon-Suncoast Contracting used its on-site bulldozers to start spreading the mulch so the fire would burn itself out.
Cary police, Wake and Chatham County sheriff’s deputies and state troopers closed roads, diverted cars out of the area and checked on accidents until about 10:30 a.m., when visibility increased. By noon, the skies were clear, and several people were out biking the area’s country roads, although the smell of smoke still lingered.
Staff writer Ron Gallagher contributed to this story.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon
Will Doran: 919-460-2604; @will_doran