Copyright © 2006-07
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Rogue River National Forest
May 18, 2006
Photos by the Author
"We were unable to verify a manufacturer's
The van caught fire on Thursday, May 18, 2006.
At 2:44 in the afternoon to be exact. We were heading east on
Highway 140, which links Medford with Klamath Falls, on our
way to the cabin. I was at the wheel. Pushed by traffic, I had
missed the poorly-marked turnoff for Forest Road 37 and waited
on the shoulder for traffic to clear before wheeling a perfect
270-degree left semicircle to enter the two-lane road slick
as an Olympic high diver. In my bones, however, I think I already
sensed something wrong.
"I smell something burning," Barbara
"Something is burning," Barbara's
sister agreed. Tina had flown out from Chicago the day before
to drive with us to Oregon in one happy family outing. She had
never seen our cabin, and we were looking forward to arriving
there in another ten minutes. What a fine time we were having!
The day was oppressively hot, and because we
kept the air conditioning on low, I had kept a watchful eye
on the water temperature. During the 3300-foot climb up the
basaltic slopes from Medford, the gauge had not risen much above
halfway. But I instinctively glanced down again. The temperature
was fine, but the red "Check Engine" light glared
balefully at me.
STOP THE ENGINE IMMEDIATELY! was indelibly
etched in my amygdala as in some primordial instruction manual.
But there was nowhere to pull off! The narrow blacktop
byway was hemmed in with dense forest and impenetrable brush.
We were speeding through a shoulderless green canyon. Each elongated
second boomed twice in my chest, shaking the hands that gripped
"Is that smoke?" Barbara pointed to
a thin blackish wisp blowing back from the louvers between the
windshield and hood.
Before I could respond, a dirt pullout appeared
on the right, and I jerked the wheel over and jammed on the
brakes. The engine died even before the wheels stopped turning.
"Get out!" Barbara cried, shouldering
open the side door. "Get out now!"
I twisted the ignition key free and leapt out
of the driver's seat, remembering to yank the hood latch as
I dropped to the ground. Vapors too dark for steam hissed insolently
out of the louvers, the sheet metal ticking. This did not look
like your ordinary radiator boil-over.
"Ow, ow, ow!" My fingers burned
as I fished under the hood for the latch. "That's hot!"
"Don't open it!" Barbara pleaded,
cringing back from the van.
I found the catch and hoisted open the hood.
A fire blazed on top of the engine, back near the firewall beneath
the windshield and dashboard. Black smoke billowed out, rolling
toward Barbara and Tina.
"Shit!" I bellowed. "The
engine's on fire!"
"What're we gonna do?" Barbara
implored, her eyes snared by the dancing flames. She called
to Tina, "Get your stuff out!"
Fire extinguisher! My mind whirred, visualizing
a shining red Santa Claus cylinder with black hose and handle
and a jingling silver pin ring. "Don't we have a fire
extinguisher somewhere?" Whether it was recollection
or wishful thinking, I could not discern.
Barbara stared blankly.
I raced around to the side door. If we had one,
it would probably be in the tool duffle under the bed. I pulled
out the ice chest, a box of wine bottles, and whatever else
was in the way, dumping them haphazardly outside, found the
canvass bag, dragged it out, and tossed through its contents.
No fire extinguisher! In disbelief, I rifled through a second
No fire extinguisher!
Tina was carrying her suitcase and clothing to
a low knoll twenty feet away. Barbara had searched through the
utility basket in the back of the van and found nothing.
Okay. Get a grip! No more than a dozen
seconds had elapsed, but it seemed like calamity was about to
overwhelm us. Flames would soon ignite the dashboard.
Water! We carried a three-and-a-half-gallon
jug of drinking water just inside the side door. I hauled it
to the front of the van, screwed on the long-neck spout, and
hoisted it over the engine. Water gushed out of the nozzle.
The water was spreading the fire! Flaming
liquid ran down the sides and back of the engine and disappeared
god-knows where. Burning fuel ran everywhere.
Reality clicked in. A grim certainty perched
like the raven of death, and I dropped the useless jug. Calmly
I turned to Barbara and Tina. "The whole van's gonna burn
up. There's nothing we can do about it! Let's get everything
out we can."
In a frenzy I began pulling everything I could
from the side door, while Barbara and Tina emptied things out
of the back. Within two minutes we had hauled away what we could
and dumped it on the little knoll. The dashboard was now fully
engulfed. Flame and poisonous black smoke gushed back along
the ceiling like a blow torch and out the rear doors.
There was still a lot of stuff inside. Tool boxes.
A chain saw. Clothes. Jackets. Bedding. The orange wonder I
built forty years ago. God knows what else. So I kept fishing
through the side doors, bent low beneath the flames and smoke,
to retrieve what I could reach.
"Get away!" Barbara was yelling
at me. "It's going to blow up!" She and her
sister had drawn back onto the road a good fifty feet and looked
like they would like to get a hell of a lot further away.
But the fire was following the ceiling, and the
gas tank was down below, out of peril for now, it seemed to
me. And this was our stuff! I continued to snatch a few
more items from the side door until a whoosh of flames burst
out of the black smoke, singing the hairs on my arm. Discretion
overrode valor, and I backed away. Things can be replaced.
A big red pickup had pulled over on the far side
of the road, and I saw the burly driver approach.
"Do you have a fire extinguisher?"
"Sure do," he responded and ran back
to his truck. In an instant he returned with the little red
cylinder I had longed for, then stopped dead in his tracks.
The van had become an inferno, a thick, oily black cloud roaring
straight up into the windless sky. No way was he going to approach
through the scorching wall of heat to use it. And if he could,
that puny red bottle wasn't going to do a damned thing. His
moment of glory having passed him by, the man apologized, climbed
back into his rig, then roared on past the conflagration, likely
blistering his paint.
get away!" Barbara insisted, having seen to many wide-screen
gas tank explosions in Hollywood movies. She practically dragged
me a quarter mile up the road, where Tina had managed to get
sufficient bars on her cell phone to call 911. A fire crew was
on its way. If they could find our remote corner of the
The gas tank never did explode, but I think all
30 gallons drained out to feed the conflagration. Occasionally
a blazing tire would detonate. Wood and plastic burned. Wheel
hubs melted into puddles of modern aluminum sculpture. The inferno
became so hot that the few cars approaching from each direction
knew better than to try to run past. Vehicles stopped, wide-eyed
folks got out wondering what the hell had happened, looked impermanence
in the eye, and muttered subdued condolences.
the time the Lake Creek Rural Fire District pickup truck arrived,
it was marshmallow-toasting time. The blistering heat had subsided.
Over Barbara's protests, I approached the little knoll to see
what we had managed to salvage. A few plastic items had melted,
but I found the digital camera intact inside its padded case.
Despite the heat of the day, the lone young firefighter
meticulously donned his yellow and red HAZMAT gear and breathing
apparatus before attacking the dwindling flames with the foam
and water onboard his fire truck. Later, after the Forest Service
fire crew arrived, they had to lead the man up to our little
knoll to lie him down and cope with a touch of heat stroke.
We wondered what noxious fumes we might have inhaled in our
A companionate young woman bystander offered
Barbara a ride to Ashland to pick up a rental car. It started
raining, so Tina and I covered our salvaged gear with a rescued
tarp and orphaned canopy. Then we sat and waited for Barbara,
trying to comprehend what had just happened.
arrived to evaluate the situation. The forest had not been damaged.
I gave statements to men from several different agenciesas we
examined the wreckage. Everyone agreed the fire was probably
caused by a fuel leak of some sort on the engine. The Forest
Service firefighters lingered in their truck to make sure the
tow truck came to haul the burned hulk out of their forest.
I chatted with them a bit, but mostly just sat and waited.
Barbara returned two hours later with a new Ford
Escape and her own tale of frustration. No car rentals could
be found in Ashland. The nearest place to rent a car was at
the airport in Medford. Her young benefactor graciously offered
to drive her there. Unfortunately, the car
had no air conditioning. Woozy from the heat, out of touch,
and emotionally drained, Barbara waited in line, filled out
the paperwork, then had to drive her way through road construction
delays to get back.
tow truck arrived about the same time as Barbara. The driver
winched the dead beast onto the flatbed. Barbara, Tina, and
I could barely cram what we had salvaged from the fire and the
three of us into the minuscule mini-SUV. We limped the final
ten miles to the cabin. On the way Barbara first became aware
that she had managed to injure something in her right knee.
The van had been a Ford. A 1994 Glavel conversion.
We had purchased it used at the end of 2004. The prior owners
were a local couple short enough to sleep crosswise, but I built
a fine queen-sized bed in back, with space below to hold all
our gear. The van already had 90,000 miles on it, but we pumped
another $2,200 into it for tires, belts, hoses, plugs and wires,
ball joints, and a fuel filler tube to bring it up to like-new
condition. We hoped this would be the last van we would have
to buy and had grown comfortable with it. The week before the
fateful trip, I had taken the vehicle into the Ford dealer in
Eureka to have a mechanic check it out again for the coming
season. After replacing two transmission seals "just to
be on the safe side," the mechanic gave it a clean bill
the better part of twenty years a series of three vans had enhanced
our lifestyle. We explored the wilderness in those vans, sleeping
where we pleased in the wild forest and sage-covered desert,
without having to endure the crush of tasteless tourists with
noisy children running amok around us. On each backpack trip
we slept in our comfortable bed at the trailhead and got an
early start hiking the next day. All our gear had a place, and
we knew where it was stowed.
With the fire, the fundamental bedrock of our
reality changed. A darkness beyond reason settled over me the
ensuing weeks and months. For our backpacking trips of 2006,
we rented cars, slung up tents on uneven ground, slept fitfully,
and could never locate the equipment we needed. Vague forebodings
of impermanence and attachment troubled my waking dreams. Life
without a van seemed fatally impaired.
Three months after the fire I received a recall
notice in the mail from a Mr. Frank M. Ligon at the Ford Motor
Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford had decided that "a
defect which relates to motor vehicle safety" exists in
certain vehicles equipped with Speed Control, such as ours.
In particular, Mr. Ligon was kind enough to advise us of the
"On your vehicle, an underhood speed control
deactivation switch may overheat, smoke, or burn, which could
result in an underhood fire. This condition may occur either
when the vehicle is parked or when it is being operated, even
if the speed control is not in use."
I wrote Mr. Ligon back, thanking him for the
advisory and requesting that he contact me at his early convenience
to discuss compensation for the damages and injuries resulting
from our fire.
On October 20, 2006, I received a nice reply
letter from a Regina Johnson, Ford Consumer Affairs, declining
to offer us any help. "Due to the extensive amount of
damage to the vehicle," she wrote, "we were
unable to verify a manufacturer's defect."
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