After their camping adventures of the past few days, this was just another boring dog drop for them and they showed no signs of stress.
Engine FIRE! This is not the type of adventure we had hoped for when making our return trip from our northwoods camp-out. Although the end of the story is a happy one, it made us really think about how close we came to a complete and horrific disaster and prompted us to begin making some very important contingency plans that were only loosely in place before the recent incident.
There is a steep hill when approaching Duluth from the South and also when leaving Duluth from the North. We happened to be on the southbound road, making the steep ascent to our refueling stop at the top of the hill. Rebecca and I traveled with the little dogs on the way home in the Tacoma and Neil was following close behind us in the dog truck which is a 24' dually, 1 ton cube van. He pulled into the pumps right behind me. The moment I stopped I could smell something burning and immediately thought there was something wrong with my vehicle. Out of truck I jumped to zip back and fill Neil in on this concern when I saw white smoke oozing out of the hood of the cube van. "You're smoking!", I yelled. Neil directed me to drive away from the pump. He restarted the dog truck and followed, then passed and parked a ways down the hill from the gas station and on the edge of a Country Kitchen restaurant parking lot. Neil got to the hood of the cube van first. He calmly, yet firmly shouted that we needed to get the dogs out of the truck, NOW. There were flames in the engine! Rebecca and Neil kicked it in to high gear, taking the dogs' stake out lines off the truck and swiftly attaching them to anything that appeared to be secure enough to hold them while I called 911. Shortly after the 911 call, most of the dogs were now off the truck thanks to many passers-by who stopped to help. Neil had used the fire extinguisher we keep in the cube van and it did give us a few precious minutes but not much longer.
The fire department arrived within a short time and began to douse the engine with white foam. This went on for the next 15-20 minutes.
During the somewhat organized chaos and after everyone was deemed safe, I walked through the line of dogs, taking yet another head count and noticed that Topa, one of our "in season" females was placed within reach of Ilo, an intact male who was about to take advantage of the situation. Just in time! That's just what we need.
The batteries to the vehicle were then disconnected so that it would be safe to transport, loaded with dogs, to the repair shop. The fire fighters continued to look at each other, shaking their heads at where the fire started and pondering how it began. They had no idea. It wasn't a toxic smell and it wasn't black smoke. It was white smoke. For the moment we discussed the possibility of a fire that didn't do any damage at all and that we would be back on the road in no time at all once it was fully checked over. This was our mantra for the next two hours as we waited for the mechanic to give it a good inspection. After, I might add, a scary sight of the dog truck, filled with dogs and gear, being winched on to the back of a flat bed tow truck and trucked across the Lake Superior bridge to Superior, Wisconsin. The dog truck had a noticeable tilt to the right and my stomach knotted up as I watched it move down the road.
And do you know what the mechanic said? "I have no idea". ! What?! "I can see some leaves up in the area you saw flames but I see no damage at all." After a round of conversions about what is could have been, we concluded that one of our friendly neighborhood chipmunks built himself a cozy nest on the area right behind the engine where the exhaust leads out. This area can get very hot and a mass of organic material could ignite if it got hot enough. Which it apparently did. Dennis, our hero, then attempted to start up the truck after connecting the batteries. It took several attempts and he commented that the glow plugs sounded as though they were burnt out and he asked if it was a hard starter. "Not at all", we said, so we just assumed it was the flood of white foam in the engine earlier that caused the delay because it did soon start and continued to start each time we shut it off for another test. We gave Dennis a gift certificate to a Points Unknown adventure and thanked him profusely as we headed out of the repair shop parking lot, hoping to never encounter another adventure of this type in the future.
Rebecca certainly got an initiation on this trip and we were so impressed with how quickly and calmly she reacted when the dogs' safety was compromised. We can't thank her enough. We are so thankful that all of our people and dogs got out safely. I wish we knew who those people were who helped remove the dogs from the truck and those individuals who helped to put out the fire. We feel grateful they were there and were willing to help. Thank you!