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Fire engulfs car in Mill Creek Tennis Club parking lot

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Burning Volkswagen at Mill Creek Tennis Club. Photo credit: Tom Dreher.
Burning Volkswagen at Mill Creek Tennis Club. Photo credit: Tom Dreher.

By Richard Van Winkle, News of Mill Creek.

Clark Speed started smelling burning plastic while driving south on the Bothell-Everett Highway near the Mill Creek Town Center on Friday morning, April 7, 2017. Smoke soon started filling his 2000 Volkswagen Beetle’s interior and he had to roll down his window to dissipate the fumes.

By the time he reached 164th Street SE and turned left to head up Mill Creek Road, bits of melting plastic were falling from the car’s dashboard. Knowing he was close to his work at the Mill Creek Tennis Club, Speed thought he could reach his destination and then deal with the problem.

However, when Speed reached the tennis club’s parking lot the bits of plastic were burning. He got out of the car and wet his Washington Huskies sweatshirt thinking he could use it to put out the spreading fire. He was wrong.

The flames quickly grew and in a couple of minutes his car was engulfed in flames. At least six of the concerned onlookers called 911.

The fire trucks soon arrived, but the best they could do is put out the fire before it could spread.

Luckily, Speed only suffered minor burns in the incident.

In a later telephone interview Speed said, “In retrospect, I should have gotten out of the car as soon as it started smoking. Here is a word to the wise. Don’t risk it! If your car starts smoking, pull over and get out.”

“The car is a total loss. It just toasted the tarmac below and around it as well.”

Burned Volkswagen at Mill Creek Country Club. Photo credit: Mary Ann Baggenstos Heine.

Car fires can be deadly. According to the National Fire Protection Agency there were 174,000 car fires, which killed 445 people in 2015.

Here are some tips from State Farm Insurance website:

Watch for these red flags:

While some car fires occur in collisions, they are more often caused by problems with a vehicle's electrical or fuel system. Your best line of defense is to have these systems checked out at every service call. In between mechanic visits, look for these potential warning signs:

  • Fuses that blow repeatedly.
  • Spilled oil under the hood left over from an oil change.
  • Oil or other fluid leaks under the vehicle.
  • Cracked or loose wiring, or wiring with exposed metal.
  • Very loud sounds from the exhaust system.
  • Rapid changes in fuel level, oil levels, or engine temperature.
  • A missing cap from the oil filler.
  • Broken or loose hoses.

How to react:

If you smell smoke or see flames coming from your car while you're driving, knowing what to do can prevent injuries or even save lives. It's important to remain calm—but act quickly.

Recognize that car fires can break out in places other than the engine compartment. They also can occur under the vehicle, near the wheels and brakes, in your dashboard, and even inside the car. In fact, interior fires can be among the most frightening because of your close proximity to the flames, fumes, and smoke.

The National Safety Council recommends following these steps if you're driving and a fire starts:

  • Signal, and immediately move to the closest safe place to stop, whether that's a side lane or a median.
  • Stop the car and turn off the ignition.
  • Get every person out of the car, and don't allow anyone to go back to retrieve personal items.
  • Move far from the burning vehicle to avoid the flames and toxic fumes—at least 100 feet—and also keep bystanders back.
  • Call 911.
  • Alert oncoming traffic if possible.

It's generally not recommended that you try to put out the fire yourself. Opening the hood or car doors increases the air supply and may accelerate the fire.

Once the fire has been put out, contact your insurance agent. If possible, take photos of the damage, and collect the names and phone numbers of witnesses. Ask the firefighters when and if it is safe to remove personal items from the vehicle. Have it towed to a repair shop for an inspection before attempting to operate it again.

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