Smoke over Ariz. highway spurs accidents

Thick smoke from a blaze set to reduce wildfire risks blinded motorists Wednesday on the main highway across northern Arizona near the Grand Canyon, causing numerous accidents as haze clouded the freeway for hours and reduced visibility to 20 feet, officials said.

The fire to burn dry brush and trees was set Tuesday in the Kaibab National Forest that surrounds Flagstaff, and officials knew that a wind shift overnight would send smoke toward Interstate 40.

But they were surprised that it did not dissipate as predicted, said Brady Smith, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Multiple collisions with minor injuries to motorists and passengers were blamed on smoky haze that settled over the highway for about five hours. Authorities closed I-40 for hours to prevent more accidents.

Police had not immediately determined whether the poor visibility was the cause of a fatal accident after a vehicle was sandwiched between two tractor-trailers before dawn, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said.

Controlled burns are frequent events in Arizona this time of year as forest managers work to thin brush and trees that can present major wildfire risks in summer months.

Smoke from the fires can cause a nuisance for residents and tourists who flock to the Flagstaff area this time of year to look at fall foliage.