The Burning Van
Copyright © 2006-07 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Rogue River National Forest
May 18, 2006

Photos by the Author

"We were unable to verify a manufacturer's defect"

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 announced.

"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.

"Oh shit."

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 the wheel.

"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 time.

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. Arms cannot.

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?" I yelled.

"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.

"Let's 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 woods.

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.

By 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 frenzy.

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.

Investigators 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.

The 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 of health.

For 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 following issue:

"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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