Skip to main content

Fire Safety 101: Be Prepared


“Damnit! Again!”


I knew what was going on when I heard these sounds over my shoulder as I built a chicken coop in my daughter-in-law’s backyard. Looking over to the road going up the hill along side their property, I saw an old CJ-2A with a man behind the wheel and a teenager behind the rear bumper, exhausted from pushing the dead Jeep in an attempt to “clutch-start” it. I put down my tools and walked over. “The battery’s dead,” the man said from behind the wheel in way of a greeting. “Let’s have a look,” I suggested.

After the man crawled out from behind the old Jeep’s wheel, I couldn’t help but say, more as a question than a statement of fact, “It should have started when you tried to clutch-start it.” Popping the hood, the man replied, “Well, I am sure the battery is toast.” He went on to explain how he had just inherited the Jeep. By the way he fumbled to open the hood, and then how he looked at the engine, I suspected pulling wrenches wasn’t one of his favorite hobbies.

“Well, there are two things that could be going wrong,” I tried to simplify. “Either it’s not getting fuel, or it’s not getting a spark.”

“Why don’t I get a vehicle and some cables?” I suggested. I ran back to where my son-in-law, Justin, was still working on the chicken coop. “Let’s go jump this guy’s Jeep,” I called to him. Justin already had the cables in the truck and was ready to go.

We pulled up to the front bumper of the Jeep. I decided to let Justin and the Jeep driver hook it up, since they appeared to be neighbors. Justin clamped the positive post on the Jeep’s battery and grabbed the hood post with the negative clamp, while I blocked the rear wheels and knocked the transmission out of gear. As I came around to the front of the two vehicles, Justin was about to hook the two other ends to the battery in his truck.

“Look to the side!” I commanded as he was about to place the second (negative) cable to the post. He didn’t question why, but just followed the instructions. When everything was set, I wiggled all four clamps a bit to scratch into some fresh metal.

“Okay, give it a try,” I told the Jeep owner. It fired right up. Justin started to take off the cables. “Look to the side,” I told him again. We wrapped up the cables, the Jeep owner thanked us, and we all went back to what we were doing.

“What was that ‘look to the side’ stuff? “ Justin asked as we rolled back into his driveway. “I never told you about the battery that blew up?” I replied, as if he should have known every story that rattled around in my head.


I told Justin about a time when I was about 16 years old and had to jump a car after Church one Sunday morning. A friend, who had the responsibility of driving his family to church, discovered the battery was dead on the family car. When he saw me and my cousin walking back to our car, he hollered at us to pull up and jump him.

We were 16 years old and knew it all. We pulled right up, drug out our cables, and hooked up my cousin’s battery while our friend, Kenny, picked up the other ends. He was about to apply the second clamp when we hear a loud “BOOM!” My cousin and I instinctively ducked. When we came back up, we saw Kenny running to a snow bank screaming, “My eyes! My eyes!”

He was kneeling in the snow grinding handfuls of it into his face, continuing to yell, “My eyes!” This was before cell phones. We knew we could drive him the half mile to the hospital faster than trying to find a phone to call for an ambulance. We used a scarf to wrap snow up for Kenny to hold to his face. Then we sped to the emergency.

Thankfully, the staff was able to rinse and treat his eyes with no loss of sight. Kenny was so lucky, and we were so thankful. We all learned a valuable lesson that day: Look away when jumping a battery.

A spark was enough to explode hydrogen fumes emitting from Kenny’s worn out battery. The top of the case blew off, showering him in battery acid. Though his clothes were pretty much ruined, he escaped a potentially blinding tragedy.

As I recounted the story to my son-in-law, I could tell he was absorbing the lesson. He happens to be a volunteer fireman, so he was aware of the potential dangers inherent to vehicles. The battery exploding wasn’t one he had considered, however. He thanked me for the tip. I am sure he will remember it.


As we resumed our work on the chicken coop, Justin and I started swapping stories about different car fires. I had been a volunteer fireman for a few years when I got out of graduate school. Justin proudly serves in his town’s fire department. We both share a few good tales, like a Camaro that was burning so bad when my fire department arrived, we lobbed the water at because we were afraid it was going to blow up. With each exploding tire, we flinched as though a 500-lb bomb had landed next to us!

Justin and I went back and forth with stories, but the one that caught his attention was a fire that I had not fought as a volunteer fireman, but rather, just as a goofy hobbyist. It was a fire that provided me with a lesson I continue to practice to this day.

About 10 years ago, I was driving a friend’s M715 to a parade. He had left before me in his M38A1 while I tended to a few last-minute details. One of the things on his list for me to do was to “top off the oil” on the inline 6-cylinder. Popping the hood, I pulled the dipstick and wiped it clean before repeating the process and reading the level. He was right. It was low by about a quart.

I knew my buddy’s garage pretty well, so I walked over to where he stored fresh oil. Grabbing one quart and a funnel, I returned to the M715 and topped off the engine. Knowing I was running late, I dropped the hood, put the funnel back in the garage, and ran back to the truck. Jumping in, I fired up the Kaiser and started on my way to join the assembling parade.

About half way there, I pulled up at a stoplight. Someone pulled up on my right side and pointed. I figured it was a feeble attempt at a “thumbs up,” so I waved and eased out the clutch when the light turned green. Two blocks later, I had to stop at a stop sign. This time, I noticed smoke seeping out of either side of the hood!

I turned off the engine, put it in gear, and ran around to release the hood. Lifting it up (a really dumb mistake), small flames popped to life on the engine block! I dropped the hood and ran back to the truck. No fire extinguisher! Looking around, I saw a beauty salon that was open. I ran over to it and threw open the door.

“I need your fire extinguisher!” I yelled to a woman standing behind a head of curlers. “What?” she replied, “I will get the manager.”

I slammed a $50 dollar bill on her counter and declared, “My truck’s on fire. I am TAKING your extinguisher!” With that, I pulled a small, red extinguisher from the wall and ran back to the truck.

I opened and propped the hood (second dumb mistake!). As I pulled the pin on the extinguisher, I looked at the engine to determine my plan of attack.

Thankfully, as I surveyed it, it became apparent there was no more fire. Just a lot of mess—the engine, engine compartment, and the underside of the hood were all covered in oil. It took a few moments for the adrenaline to recede, allowing my brain to re-engage.

Then I saw the oil cap still sitting on the valve cover where I had set it when I added a quart of oil. Being that the M715 had an overhead cam in the 230.5 cu. in. straight six, the cam splashed oil out the filler cap opening and over much of the engine, some of it landing on the exhaust manifold. Hot enough to ignite the oil, a small fire ensued.

When I opened the hood that first time, the fire received enough air circulation to fan the flames. Thankfully, the intensity of an oil fire is not so great—it can often extinguish without any help. Luckily for me, that is what happened in this instance.

Other than an engine compartment covered in oil, there was little damage. I replaced the filler cap and walked the extinguisher back to the salon. Met by the woman behind the curlers, she just held out her hands. I gave her the extinguisher and stood waiting for her to hand back the $50 bill. After a few awkward moments of silence, I determined she was not going to give the money back. I said a feeble “thanks a lot,” and left the shop.

I knew I would have to explain the whole thing to my buddy, but I decided it would be better to explain after I cleaned the engine compartment. So, I drove the to truck to the auto parts store to buy a can of engine cleaner before heading to the car wash.

Though I had avoided a serious fire, the impact has stuck with me. To this day, all of my vehicles contain a fire extinguisher. All of the car-driving kids in my life receive fire extinguishers as Christmas gifts. Though they think they will never need one, I reply with, “Well then, let’s get rid of your spare tire, too—you’ll probably never need it either.” This is usually enough for even the thickest ones to understand, “Oh yeah, I don’t carry an extinguisher because I expect to have a fire. I carry it in case I have a fire.”

It is spring and vestiges of olive drab are emerging from winter hiding places. Be careful bringing your historic military vehicles back to life—and be sure you have an extinguisher with you when you go out driving it!

Preserve the relics—they preserve the memories.

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

Frontline Feature


Be Our Frontline Feature Sponsor

Get your company or auction front and center with our Frontline Feature. Click here to learn more.