Don’t Feed the Alligators

A Personal Finance Blog from a Small-Scale Landlord’s Perspective
burning car

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Jef Poskanzer

Tonight I took my dog out to his competition obedience training class, like a usual Monday night. We often arrive early since traffic can be unpredictable. I was killing time listening to Marketplace on WBUR, the local National Public Radio affiliate.

A late model Audi A4 pulled up a few cars down from me in the lot. I noticed a plume of smoke drift away from the car as it came to a stop. I thought to myself that this guy must have been driving this thing pretty hard, and had overheated his brakes. I watched for another minute or so, and then saw it: Fire! Through the wheel spokes I could see small tongues of flame coming from the bottom of the engine.

I threw open the door of my van and grabbed for my fire extinguisher. By now the driver was on his way into the pet store above the training center. I yelled for him, “HEY!!! Your car is on fire!” He turned and smiled and kept walking. “HEY!!!” I yelled again, “YOUR CAR IS ON FIRE!” He turned and took me more seriously this time. “No it’s not,” he said, “it’s just smoke.” (Just smoke?) There was smoke drifting out of the wheel well now. “No,” I replied, “I can see flames under the car.” I pointed to where the flames were.

The driver, having finally taken me seriously, scrambled to open the door again and pull the hood release. I Pulled the pin on my fire extinguisher and stood back, ready for flames to flare up as he lifted the hood. The hood came up, and the flames were visible at the top of the engine. I asked him if it was okay for me to use the chemical extinguisher on the fire. He nodded vigorously. I Aimed the extinguisher at where I thought the seat of the fire was, Squeezed the actuator, and Swept the nozzle back and forth for 10-15 seconds.

When I released the actuator, I waited to see if the flames were out. Seeing no signs of them, I moved in close again, nozzle still pointed and actuator ready. I peered down into the engine bay where the first signs of flame were. None were visible, the fire was out.

By now, a small group of people — including a few employees of the store — had gathered. “What made you think to carry a fire extinguisher?” asked one. “I’ve seen far too many cars burned up on the side of the road,” I replied. Then I explained that my former job required me to train as an industrial firefighter. I had put out a number of staged fires before, but never a “real” fire.

My fire training had taught me to keep cool around fire, but to respect the fact that fire spreads much faster than people expect. Another two minutes, and this guy’s car would have been well on its way to a total loss. Safety should always come first, as well. I learned how to effectively use a fire extinguisher by remembering the following acronym:

  • P - Pull the pin
  • A - Aim the nozzle at the seat of the fire
  • S - Squeeze the actuator
  • S - Sweep the nozzle back and forth

I have asked my wife to memorize this acronym and quiz her every now and then on it. Now that I have a partially discharged extinguisher, I can safely stage a small fire in a can on the patio and let her put her book knowledge to practice.

The fire extinguisher that I used to put out the fire was about $25 at Home Depot. This is a very small insurance policy that saved some random guy $20,000 tonight. I have one of these on every floor of my house. Tomorrow I will be shopping for a replacement, as these are single use items. I will also buy one for my other car, which does not yet have an extinguisher.

All in all, I feel somewhat vindicated since now I can tell all the people that have ridden in my van and asked about the fire extinguisher that I have finally put it use. Yet at the same time, it’s a real bummer for this guy, who was still on his cell phone an hour later when I got out of dog class, to have had his car catch fire. I suspect that the car has not been properly maintained and that caused the fire. Lastly, I’m a bit disappointed that the guy never thanked me (even though the store employees did…), and that I’m out $25. :P

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9 Responses to “An Ounce of Prevention Saves Two Tons of Burning Car”


  1. jbardhan Says:

    That’s totally awesome. Job well done!

    It reminds me a lot of the time that Bryan Morrissey set my car on fire while trying to jumpstart it. Some dude in his workshop saw the fire and ran out with his extinguisher… only he didn’t know that because he’d used it once already (by pulling the pin, etc…) several months ago, it was empty.

    So I got to run into my apartment and “break glass in case of fire.”

    Good times, good times.

    I got another 20k miles on it after that.


  2. MITBeta Says:

    @jbardhan: I do recall a certain 1002 owned Goddard mobile having to be extinguished by the Cambridge Fire Department as well…


  3. Chris Says:

    So how does one dispose of a used/partially used fire extinguisher?


  4. MITBeta Says:

    The extinguisher indicates that the contents are non-toxic, and gives no instructions for proper disposal. I don’t think anything special needs to be done, but I will look into whether the bottle can be recycled.


  5. ideal4investors Says:

    This reminds me to hang my fire extinguisher up in the laundry room where everyone can see it. We had a fire a couple of years ago and my husband and I were scrambling to find it!


  6. MITBeta Says:

    Yes… also you should periodically remind yourself how to unstrap it from its bracket. I definitely fumbled with the strap on the fire extinguisher in my van and as a result the driver of the car almost got away. The fire extinguishers in my house are all hung up, some not as visible as others…


  7. How To House Train A Puppy Says:

    Howdy. Just planned to send anyone a line to enable you know you have a handful of true users out there.


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