Sunday, January 29, 2012

Truck fire in the driveway

On Saturday, 14 Jan 2012, around 8:30 p.m., my 2002 Ford F150 pickup truck (~115k miles) was destroyed by a fire that started while the truck was parked in the driveway. No one was in the truck, and the fire department suspects it was started by an electrical short.

Very fortunately, no one was hurt and nothing was damaged or lost except the truck itself.

As the pictures just below show, it was quite an inferno. This picture was taken with my cell phone from some 150 yards away, after the police had evacuated everyone but before the fire truck had arrived.

As the fire department prepared to put the blaze out, I slipped close enough to take this picture before the police urged everyone back again.

So what happened?

Lisa was out that Saturday night with her girlfriends for their monthly Bunco game. I had gone out about 6:30p in the truck to drop off Dane to spend the night at a friend's house. I returned home just before 7:00p, parked the truck in the driveway, and then went in to eat supper and hang out with the two older boys, Mason and Clark.

Around 8:30p, I was in my room watching a football game while both boys were relaxing upstairs. From his room over the garage, Mason heard something pop and saw a flash of light. He looked out his window and saw the truck just beginning to burst into flames. He raced down he stairs, calling out, "Dad, your truck's on fire! Your truck's on fire!"

Naturally, I was incredulous. "What? You're crazy."

"No, it's on fire!" Then he raced to the door. I followed him out, and sure enough, the truck was burning. Flames about 1 foot high were licking out from under the hood much like a BBQ grill just beginning to flame out, and smoke was beginning to billow from the front of the truck.

A lady in a passing minivan stopped when she saw the flames. She rolled down the window and yelled across to Mason, asking if we needed help or the fire department. I yelled for somebody to call 911. Clark (who'd heard the commotion and had come downstairs at that point) raced back inside and dialed for the fire department. The mystery lady also began calling from her cell phone as she drove down the street to get clear of the scene. I grabbed for the garden hose that was coiled right next to the house. It must have been kinked because I couldn't get any water to come out immediately.

The flames were getting higher quickly, growing to a couple of feet and becoming more extensive. Although I can't explain how I knew, I realized I needed to get the truck away from the house. I had the keys in my pocket and began frantically pushing the fob button to unlock the driver's door. The door lock remained locked, though -- because (naturally) the battery must have been on fire. I had a panicky thought that I wouldn't be able to get in the truck before I realized I was holding the key. I manually unlocked the door, threw the truck out of gear, and shoved it towards the street. (Later I realized we would have been in a much worse position if the truck had not been a straight-shift. Most likely I wouldn't have been able to get it out of gear and away from the house, which might have meant a much worse outcome. One very lucky break.)

As the truck rolled towards the street, I saw black rubber imprints and dripping aluminum on the driveway as the now-flaming front tires moved past.

Had we had any less notice, most likely the tires would have been too far gone to have been able to move the truck! It reached the end of the slight slope on our driveway with a small head of speed and began rolling across the street. I panicked, thinking, "If it jumps the curb, it might roll through the neighbor's yard and into their front door!" I ran to catch up, leaped in the open driver's door, and began furiously pumping the brakes. No good. The brakes were gone and the truck was rolling freely. Very, very fortunately, it hit the curb and bounced up the edge slightly before breaking its roll and dropping back into the street.

Now the fire had reached the cab and the flames were licking from under the dash on the passenger side. I jumped out and ran back to the house to pay out the garden hose. Clark was on the phone with the emergency dispatcher, telling the dispatcher everything that was happening. With Mason's help, I got the hose mostly unkinked and began trying to spray a thin stream of water on the fire, which had now entirely consumed the front of the truck and was working its way through the rest of the cab. Everything forward from the rear window was engulfed. We heard a muffled explosion, followed by another explosion. I couldn't get anywhere near the truck, and now Clark was yelling instructions to me from the dispatcher: "Get away from the truck! Get away from the truck, Dad! The fire department's on the way! Get back!"

Officer Townes of the Pflugerville Police Dept was the first emergency responder to reach the scene. He blocked the street with his patrol car while still several houses down and then ran towards us. We had retreated to the front porch to watch as there wasn't much more we could do. As we heard more explosions and pops coming from what was now a full-out inferno, Officer Townes ordered us to evacuate to safety down the street where his patrol car was parked. Clark hung up with the dispatcher, and the three of moved down the street. Very quickly, several other patrol cars arrived and began blocking the other nearby streets. We could hear the sirens from the fire engine growing closer.

By the time the fire engine arrived, there wasn't anything that could be done beyond contain the blaze and put it out. The truck was far past any hope of saving. The fire fighters donned their suits, pulled out hoses, and began spraying down the fire.

Once the fire was out, we took some pictures while we waited for the tow truck to arrive to haul the carcass away.

Personally, I found this picture the most striking. You are looking at the remains of the cab. The driver's seat is nothing but a frame. The steering wheel is gone, its presence marked only by a stubby post where it used to be. The passenger seat is also gone. The heater core that's usually hidden deep within the dash now hangs in view.

The tow truck operator loads the skeleton onto a flatbed to haul away.

Bye-bye, old girl. (sniffle) 

A few days later I went to the towing yard to take a few last pictures before the truck was taken away for scrap metal. In the light of day she was a sad hulk, practically sunken into the ground. 

A view of the engine compartment, now mostly one molten mass.

A crooked frown to complete her collapsed appearance.

Looking in the passenger window, the melted metal interior reminds me for some reason of scenes from the Terminator movies.

I just can't believe nothing remains except the metal.  If it could burn, it did.



Some of the pops and explosions, we later learned from the fire department, were from the glass in the doors and windows shattering in the heat.

An open-eyed stare.  She'll never see again.

The nibs below are what was left of the spark plug wires at the point where they attached to the distributor cap.

The wheel didn't completely melt, but it will certainly never roll again.

One last look before the salvage man hauls her away to be crushed.

So, what caused the fire?
We'll never know for sure, but I believe it was caused by an electrical short. In the few weeks prior to the fire, I'd experienced some unusual electrical problems: power windows not working, dome lights turning off, windshield wipers that wouldn't turn on, and a few other oddities. Nothing that impacted the truck's driving behavior, though. I replaced one fuse at least twice but could not seem to isolate the cause for the popped fuse. We were already planning to get rid of the truck in the early spring, and I was very hesitant to put any more money into repairs, especially for what seemed to be "cosmetic" concerns. After all, the truck was worth -- at most -- about $1,500. And I'd have been lucky to get that, considering how far into the ground I'd driven it over the years. She had a lot of dings, to say the least.

If you Google "Ford cruise control fires," though, you'll find a plethora of articles about similar fires. It appears that certain years of Ford pickup trucks and SUVs were built with a cruise control switch that corrodes over time. At some point, the corrosion permits an electrical short that causes fires. Ford issued a recall for the vehicles. I don't know if I ever received the recall notice. Maybe I did but it was tossed as junk mail? Who knows. I don't feel as though there's much opportunity for a case because, A) the truck was not well maintained, and B) I no longer have the truck for forensic examination. Moreover, I was only carrying liability insurance on it because the truck was nearly 11 years old, so there's no pressing insurance investigation to spur any deeper digging.

In any event, we are all safe. No one was hurt. The damage was contained to just the truck. Our monetary loss was minimal. And life goes on!

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