Yesterday, my daughter and I were alongside a semi that started smoking. The driver pulled off the road onto the shoulder, and as we drove past in traffic, we saw the smoke get heavier.
I pulled off to the side and dug for our fire extinguisher. It's supposed to be under the passenger seat or the dead space next to it. This is not my usual vehicle—my van has a large extinguisher under the passenger seat. I couldn't find one in this car, and about that time, flames started coming out of the tractor's headlight. I checked the rear hatch of our vehicle, which has cargo straps, saws, machetes, tools, prybars, but no extinguisher.
The driver was on the phone to 911, and apparently, another passerby sprinted across 6 lanes of US31 and a block down to the fire station.
I improvised with several bottles of water from the flat we keep in back, managing to kill some of the flames on the lamp assembly, tire and fender. A passenger in another vehicle handed my daughter several more bottles as they drove by. She kept bringing me bottles, I kept squirting them in.
Flames under the hood kept spreading back to the surface, and it finally occurred to me I should be using the awl on my multitool to punch the caps so I could spray a stream. This was more effective. Flames flared up, I got them knocked down. I put out the tire, the fender and the headlight, which cracked and burst. I started spraying under the grill.
I was having some success, but it wasn't going to be enough. I could hear sirens.
In the parking lot behind me, someone screamed for me to get back. Why? The fire was nowhere near the fuel tank, tanks almost never explode, and diesel is less reactive than gasoline. I was safe enough. But that's the effect of too many movies on people's thought processes.
Someone else started directing traffic into the other lanes.
Under the hood, the fire flared up, while the driver tried to reach his extinguisher, which was locked in an outside compartment. His keys had remained in the ignition, and he'd left them as he vacated, which was the right thing to do at the time.
Two police cars rolled up and blocked traffic.
The flames rolled out behind the hood, and there wasn't much more I could do. The fire truck was crossing the highway, and the cops had traffic under control. One of them pointed at me and the road, I thumbed up and we climbed back in and drove off.
It was 30 seconds later I realized something, opened the console, and found the extinguisher in its fitted compartment within. It wasn't my usual vehicle, so I hadn't instinctively known where it was, and I hadn't remembered. Would the extinguisher have been enough? Maybe, though with flames under the hood it might not have mattered if I couldn’t reach them. I'd definitely slowed the fire down, which counted for something.
On our way back a half hour later, I stopped to talk to the driver. The engine compartment was burned, and the front body gone. The cab was largely undamaged. The rest of the truck was fine. It looked repairable, since it didn't seem to have suffered any structural damage.
I'm very irritated that I didn't remember where the extinguisher was, and that I'd forgotten the trick of making a spray bottle by punching a hole. I've done that before, but not recently. We responded, and were helpful (no one else stopped for several minutes, and no one else had an extinguisher), but were not optimal in our efficiency.
From this I learned to have more drills with our own vehicles. Skills are perishable and must be practiced.
I use old extinguishers with low charges to practice on burning brush. I need to add response drills in each vehicle to the drills we do in the house. That $10 extinguisher would have made a difference, if used as well.