How To Drive A Car That’s On Fire

The French Connection
The French Connection

The morning commute was at a dead stop when my car caught fire. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, it felt like my car was a buffalo that suddenly burst into flames in the middle of a stampede. Well, if the stampede was just kinda standing around. I was mostly worried about the other drivers. If I did anything stupid it would affect the other buffalo near me. So I calmly put my turn signal on and tried to find someone who wasn’t a jerk and would let me over. Commuters are often selfish.

We go through our days blissfully ignorant of potential catastrophes. We forget disaster can strike at any moment. To make matters worse, I’m naturally over-confident, which means I’m totally unprepared when my world goes wrong. I’m like the anti-Boy Scout. I’m basically a really tall five-year old who drinks, cusses and has a driver’s license. Since I somehow survived this odd catastrophe perhaps this story will better prepare you for your next disaster.

Before the fire started I noticed a funny smell. Being a guy, I thought, “Yeah, I really need to clean my car.” A few miles later, I noticed smoke rising from the clothing piled on my front seat. I shoved the clothes off and bright flames leapt up.

Right in the middle of what used to be my passenger seat was a huge hole and an oddly colored fire. It looked like the witch’s cauldron from The Little Mermaid. Yeah, I just referenced Ursula. But that’s exactly what it looked like. The fire burned blue and yellow and green with hints of red and orange at the tips of the flames.

My first thought was, “Well… that can’t be good.”

My second thought was, “Car seats aren’t supposed to catch fire… they’re fireproof.”

Not true. A car seat will burn like a Dura-flame log in a campfire.

My third thought was, “It’s okay… this’ll be fine.”

I tend to see the sunny side of shitty circumstances. Guess I’m lucky that way. In a crisis, sometimes ignorance gives you the confidence to act.

But here’s some good advice: when disaster strikes… don’t panic!

If you’re in a car that catches fire, remember you’re driving. A knee-jerk reaction is far more dangerous than the fire.

So, I remained calm. But what I overlooked was… I’m kinda an idiot. Forgetting that fire loves oxygen, I rolled down all the windows. My car was filling up with white-blue-green smoke and I couldn’t breathe. But the rush of fresh air fed the beast burning in my front seat. With the windows down and a thick cloud of smoke puffing out, it looked like my car was jam-packed with a reggae band.

Other drivers tend to overreact when they see a fire burning inside your car. Since it was bumper-to-bumper traffic plenty of drivers noticed my car was on fire. The funny thing was some of them looked worried my car fire might slow them down. I felt like my fire was ruining their morning. I knew I had to get off the freeway.

The problem was I was stuck miles from an off-ramp. With all the smoke, I couldn’t see or breathe well. And I really needed to get out of the car. So with my typical lack of forethought I opened the sunroof and stuck my head out. Any firemen will tell you smoke is one of the most dangerous aspects of a fire. Since I’m an idiot, I forgot smoke rises. And I’d basically put my head in the middle of a chimney.

With my head poking up out of the top of the car I must’ve looked like a giraffe on a circus train. Also, since I had long dreadlocks, my hair danced in the wind and smoke. I created quite a spectacle for my fellow commuters. But I didn’t care what they thought. I was only worried about my car.

Some people love their pets. I know how they feel. I named my first car “Stagger Lee.” It was a ’65 Chevy Chevelle. Loved that car. My flaming Volvo sedan I’d named “Bucephalus,” after Alexander the Great’s horse. I grow very attached to my cars. I never want to see them harmed. And I was certain the firemen wouldn’t make it in time to save my car. I’d have to save it myself.

Instead of safely pulling over on the side and waiting for help like any normal, intelligent person would, when I finally made it to the gravel shoulder, I floored it. I started driving like a Southern maniac in a one-man NASCAR race… and I was losing.

With smoke pouring out of all four windows and the sunroof, I was doing about eight-five miles an hour along the shoulder of the freeway, blowing past cars stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I figured the smoke would tell people I wasn’t just another asshole who was late for work.

The freeway went straight for a few miles. I counted three overpasses. Couldn’t see an off-ramp. Of course, looking through the white-blue-green smoke puffing out of the sunroof, it was hard to tell for sure. I guessed it was three, maybe four miles.

When I spotted an eighteen-wheeler truck parked on the side of the freeway, I thought, “Hot damn! Big rigs carry fire extinguishers.”

Since I was speeding along, my car slid in the gravel way past the big rig. Once it stopped, a dust cloud caught up to my car and mixed with the white-blue-green smoke. It was kinda beautiful. But I didn’t have time for Instagram.

Some more advice: if you’re ever caught in a fire… don’t try to document it for social media.

Take all the pictures you want if you’re stuck in something slow moving like a blizzard or a flood. But fires — as pretty as they are — they move fast.

When I stepped out of my flaming car, I noticed the worried looks of the drivers and passengers stuck in traffic next to me. I’m sure they were concerned my car was about to explode. And the morning traffic was already bad enough.

You can calm down a scared child with just your eyes. It seemed to work on the 50-year-old Latina sitting shotgun in the car closest to me. Using my eyes, I told her everything was fine. She nodded. Then I turned and ran away from my burning car, toward the big rig. It was kind of a mixed-message.

When I finally reached the truck, I saw the driver’s privacy curtain was drawn. I didn’t want to get shot banging on his window and I didn’t think the hard-working driver needed to wake up just to save my dumb ass, so I ran back to my car.

I felt terrible for the people who’d inched forward in the meantime. They were stuck next to my burning car. They looked trapped. They desperately tried to inch their car forward but had nowhere to go. The driver and passenger were ice sculptures of fear mixed with childish curiosity. They really wanted to be anywhere else, yet they couldn’t turn away.

I will always remember the look on the face of the woman in the passenger seat as she watched me climb back into my burning car. She was relieved. And she was totally curious why anyone would get back in a car that’s clearly on fire. My eyes said to her, “Don’t worry, everything’s gonna be okay.” Then I stuck my head out of the sunroof, stomped on the accelerator, kicked up a rooster tail of gravel and drove away. Speeding along, I thought to myself, “This is fine… it’s all gonna work out.” In an emergency, it helps if you don’t doubt yourself.

Behind the wheel again, the new trouble was the toxic white-blue-green smoke choking me. A pounding headache formed in the back of my head. My eyes were tiny slits from the burning smoke. Hot tears dried on my face from the speed of the wind against my cheeks. I kept coughing. And it took all my effort not to pass out.

When I hit the off-ramp I slowed down to about sixty-five. My Volvo hugged the curve. I flew past all the cars waiting to exit. I remember thinking as I passed them, “My next car should be a Volvo. This car handles really well.” Even in the middle of the crisis, I was thinking about the future. It’s important to always have hope.

One last piece of advice: don’t driving a flaming car into a gas station.

If you thought the people on the freeway were nervous… imagine the people at the gas pumps when my car slid to a stop next to them. Their fears were justified. My burning Volvo was an affront to everything they knew about safety. Who parks a car on fire next to a gas pump?

But I had to. Two mini-vans were parked blocking the air & water station. Mini-vans are always such a nuisance.

So, I thought, “I’ll yank a couple windshield-wiper fluid containers down and pour the water on my raging seat fire.” By this time the fire was melting the door. Of course, all the containers in the gas station were bone-dry plastic bins. Then I remembered gas stations sell water. I left my burning car at the pump and ran inside.

The teenage girl working the register was dragging her ass. I grabbed some water bottles and got in the long line. Someone in front of me asked if the car on fire belonged to me. The teen girl at the register stared at me like I needed mental help.

She said, “You can… just come back and pay for those.”

I nodded and ran back to my car. The other customers were grabbing their children, shoving them in mini-vans and trying to get as far away as they could from my burning Volvo.

When I threw open the door, hot flames licked at my fingers. I emptied the first liter of water. It hissed as it met the chemical rainbow of fire.

Finally, the second liter put out the fire. The white-blue-green smoke died away… replaced by the grey smoke of a dying campfire. I closed the door and drank the remaining water.

After grabbing some fresh air and paying for the water, I climbed in my car and got back on the freeway. My car smelled like someone had burnt dead skunks and Barbie dolls in a pizza oven. I drove away because I didn’t want to wait for the police and firemen. The fire was gone. The trouble was over.  What could they do other than tell me I’m an idiot? Besides, I already knew that.

By the time I got to where I was going, I was only five minutes late to work. Considering how the fire almost killed me, I thought it wasn’t a bad morning commute. The main lesson: disaster will strike… it’s up to you to survive. TC mark

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