State News

Hoke man dies battling out-of-control yard fire

Posted February 20, 2011 1:43 p.m. EST
Updated February 21, 2011 6:59 p.m. EST

— Dry, windy conditions are being blamed for fanning the flames of hundreds of wildfires over the weekend, including one that led to a man's death in Hoke County.

Robert Louis Stephens, 62, died Friday when he collapsed and was burned while trying to battle an out-of-control yard fire off U.S. Highway 401 north of Wagram.

Neighbors said Stephens was burning a pile of debris at about 3 p.m. Friday when the flames took off into adjacent yards. Investigators said he tried to beat down the fire first with a garden hose and then by using rugs.

"He was just that kind of person," neighbor Ronder Baker said Monday.

Stephens was working to halt the fire when he collapsed in a neighbor's yard and was engulfed by flames, authorities said.

"It looks to me like he was trying to put out the fire before it got to my house," Baker said. "That truly (upsets) me because the house wasn't really worth it."

Stephens suffered burns over 80 percent of his body, but the emergency director in Hoke County said he likely suffered a heart attack while trying to fight the fire.

Family members say he had open-heart surgery in 2006 and had other medical problems.

"It's just one of those things that happen because he'd been raking, moving hard and fast the whole day. So, his adrenaline was probably high anyway," Baker said.

The yard fire didn't damage any homes.

Stephens was a longtime minister and pastor of Garden Chapel Church in Fayetteville. He is survived by his wife of 10 years and three grown children.

"He tried to treat everybody right," said his brother, William Stephens. "It's kind of hard right now. I take it one day at a time."

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources says 288 wildfires burned nearly 3,000 acres Saturday. Dozens of homes were evacuated around the state, mostly due to smoke.