How Having Your Car Catch on Fire in a Parking Lot is a Good Thing

Or I should say, how having MY car catch on fire in a parking lot is a good thing; a blessing rather than an omen.  

Cars are mechanical; full of individual mechanical parts that all must function in harmony to enable me to drive down the road.  Mechanical things break down; they fail.  It happens to all mechanical things sooner or later.  With that in mind, I relate my story.

On Tuesday I bought a new car battery for my 1990 baby-blue Lincoln Town Car because the old one wasn’t holding a charge very well.  I also had suspicions that the alternator was going bad as well.  These suspicions were confirmed as I was driving home on Tuesday night and the lights were dimming and the electrical systems in the car began to shut down.  So I connected the battery charger over night and made plans to have the alternator changed the next day.

Wednesday morning I disconnected the battery charger.  My 11 year old son and I got into my car and drove down to a church parking lot where we meet another student for our small car pool.  I knew that the brand new, charged up battery would get me to the school and back before it lost too much of a charge.  We got to the parking lot before the other half of our car pool arrived.  As we were sitting there in the car, I noticed what looked like a tiny bit of smoke coming out from under the hood on the driver’s side.  I popped the hood latch and looked into the engine compartment. There I saw a little, tiny flame inside the alternator.  At some point I turned the car off (I don’t remember if I turned it off before I looked under the hood or after I saw the flames).  It was just a little tiny flame, so I did what any rational man would do under those circumstances: I tried to blow it out.  Well, the flame was bigger than I realized and blowing did not good.  In all reality, it probably fed the flame.  

I didn’t totally lose my head.  Before I saw the smoke, I had noticed that a couple of other people in pick-up trucks were in the parking lot, apparently waiting for their car pool people to arrive.  I took off at a dead run and asked the first man if he had a fire extinguisher.  He did not.  I then asked the other man in the other truck if he had one.  Again the answer was no.  I then ran back to the car, trying to figure out if there was any way to get the fire out before it spread.  I was picturing my car engulfed in flames, and I really did not want that to happen.  On the way back to my car I remember that I had some cleaning clothes on the car floor, ones that I had purchased the day before.  I thought that maybe I could smother out the fire.  The entire time, the fire in the alternator was growing.  It looked like the entire inside of the alternator was now full of yellow flames, licking out, and still growing.  I took the rags and tried to smother it out.  If you have ever seen and alternator you know that it is full of air vents to help keep the mini power plant cooled down.  Because of that, I could not cover it up enough to put out the flames.  

At that moment I remembered that I had a small spray bottle on the back seat floor that still had a little bit of water left in it.  I was about to go and get the water to dump on the alternator when the fellow in the second truck, who had driven up close to me, came over with two half-liter water bottles, dumping them on the alternator, quenching the flames.  The alternator sizzled and steamed, but didn’t flame up again.  I thanked the good stranger.  

Not more than a minute later, our carpooler arrived, and I had to ask her mom to take the two young ones to school, which she happily did.  After all, my car had caught on fire.

So why was it a blessing to have my alternator catch fire in the parking lot?  Remember that I said that cars are mechanical and all mechanical machines break down sooner or later?  Well, they key word to my assertion is “parking lot.”  I feel that my failing alternator would have caught fire no matter what.  My mechanic told me he has seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 Ford alternators that had caught fire (these must be the ones that didn’t cause the rest of the car to go up in flames).  Let’s just now imagine that the fire didn’t start when it did, but started ten minutes later.  In my estimation, this is what could have happened.

I have two 11 year olds in my car driving south bound on Redwood Road, cruising at 62 miles per hour (yes, I do speed a little bit on that portion of Redwood).  The alternator then starts on fire.  First a very small flame, but then, before I see enough smoke to even know that the alternator is aflame, the 62 mile per hour indirect wind, that blows ever the radiator and into the alternator air vents, feeds the fire all the oxygen it needs to go from a small flame to a very large flame.  I then picture the flame growing and being pushed back into the other electrical wires, the spark plug wires, the vacuum hoses, and the air intake tube, along with igniting any oil residue on the engine.  At that point, I imagine that I would pull to the side of the road as I see great wisps of smoke coming out from under the hood, and coming into the inside of the car through the air vents.   I holler at the two children to, “Get Out! And stay away from the car and the road!”  I pop the hood latch, open the hood, and see the engine compartment being engulfed in flames.  I panic; I forget I have water bottles in the trunk.  When I remember, the flames are too big to be put out with a couple of  water bottles.  A few cars stop.  Maybe one of them has a fire extinguisher; maybe not.  I call 911 as I move myself and the children away from the burning car.  Cars rarely explode, but it can happen.

The fire department comes, and puts out the flames.  My prized 1990 baby-blue Lincoln Town Car is now a total loss.  When my wife discovers that the car is a loss, but that we are all safe, she rejoices that “Carlos’ Pimped Up Ride” will no longer don the driveway.  But then the police officer, who is on scene, calls a tow truck.  I say, “tow it to my house,” to my wife’s utter dismay.  But not to worry, as I will be calling Tear-A-Part to come and pick up the car and give me $100 for it.  

HOWEVER, none of that happened.  I have had cars break down on me before, but I almost always have had them break down the moment I pull into the driveway at home, or the parking lot at work.  Or I have been able to limp home or to the auto shop before the car “won’t go no more.”  Once I made it from Los Angeles to Southern Utah where family was able to help me fix my car, with no breaks.  Now as then, I was safely sitting in a parking lot when I saw smoke.  The fire was put out and only the alternator was burned.  Now the alternator (and the burnt wiring directly on top of the alternator) have been replaced.  And I, one again, to my wife’s chagrin, am cruising the valley in my awesome Town Car.

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