Smoke billowed in the sky as a roaring blaze swallowed sophomore Jordan Vermeer’s car before his very eyes on Saturday, April 30, in the parking lot known to Northwestern College students as “Hell.”
“Huge flames and black smoke were coming out of Hell,” NW senior Blake Norris said, who witnessed the inferno with Vermeer. “There were spinning plumes.”
When smoke first rose from under Vermeer’s hood as he revved his engine to jumpstart Norris’s car, he was unalarmed, thinking the smoke was exhaust.
“His car had something disconnected in the exhaust system, and sometimes exhaust came out the hood. So when he first saw smoke coming out the front of his car, it wasn’t a big deal,” Norris said.
When Vermeer opened his hood, the small fire in his engine took him by surprise. After making a joke, Vermeer realized he didn’t know how to extinguish the flame.
“There was this moment when we looked at each other and looked at the fire. We didn’t know what to do, but there was this sense of urgency,” he said.
Norris tried to smother the flames with a winter coat taken from his car, and Vermeer got a fire extinguisher at a nearby house. Neither attempt to stifle the fire succeeded.
“After we tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher, we knew there was nothing we could do about it,” said Norris. “So we decided we would just enjoy watching it burn.”
Vermeer retrieved valuables inside his car and backed away with Norris, then called the police.
“First we stood about 20 feet away; then we backed up another 20 feet, and then another 20 feet,” Vermeer said. “The fire was getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Across Orange City, volunteer firefighters such as NW English professor Ann Lundberg received an alert on their pagers and rushed to the fire station. Aboard a fire engine, firefighters coordinated their plan of action and put on their full gear, procedures they usually wait to perform until their arrival so they can assess the situation. For vehicle fires, however, they complete all preparations en route because burning cars must be extinguished as quickly as possible.
“Cars burn really, really fast and really, really hot,” Lundberg said. “We needed to get water on it quickly.”
Police arrived within five minutes of Vermeer’s call, and firefighters arrived shortly after.
“When they got there, there were six-foot-high flames coming out the sides,” Vermeer said.
Focused on the raging fire before her, Lundberg hardly noticed the crowd that had gathered. Lundberg and other firefighters carefully approached the car from a 45-degree angle, aware that shock absorbers can explode out the direct front and back of a burning vehicle.
“I recall them being pretty light-footed about it. They approached slowly,” Norris said.
After reducing the flames with water, firefighters used a tool to pry open the hood and expose the heart of the fire, the most effective target for their hoses.
“You whack it into the front corner of the hood and open it like a can,” Lundberg said.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze according to plan, and Lundberg said the incident was a routine vehicle fire. No injuries were sustained. Flames blown by strong winds melted the rear fender of another student’s vehicle, but it did not catch fire.
“A cop joked that this was probably the first time in 10 years that the fire department had come to NW and something was really happening,” said Vermeer.
A charred parking space was left behind when the car’s remnant was towed away.
“It was just a shell. There was nothing left but metal, and even some of that had started to melt away. There was hardly anything left,” Norris said.
Vermeer and Norris believe the fire started because the vehicle’s fuel line ignited when abundant exhaust overheated the engine. Police did not determine the cause of the fire at the scene, but they agreed that Vermeer and Norris’ hypothesis was plausible.
Both Vermeer and Norris remain in good humor, amused by the experience.
“At first, it was kind of nerve-wracking and stressful, but then it was kind of cool,” said Norris.
On average, the Orange City Fire Department puts out two or three vehicle fires annually, excluding car wrecks.
Lundberg said drivers can reduce the risk of vehicle fires by keeping their cars in good working order and getting regular tune-ups.
Vermeer does not plan on purchasing another car in the near future because he owns a motorcycle.