Rees and Roxanne Richards, from Duluth, had a bad day last Sunday. They were driving the back roads of Tofte, on their way to begin a canoe trip, when their car caught on fire. They had stopped at the little pond at the intersection of the Sawbill Trail and the Grade Road to take a picture. When they restarted their nearly new Subaru Outback, all the dash warning lights came on. They prudently shut the car off and broke out the owner’s manual. The manual advised them that having all the warning lights on indicated an electrical fault and they should proceed to the dealer as soon as possible. They ran through the electronic reset procedures that modern cars feature and some of the lights went out. The car ran fine, so they figured they would take it in right after their canoe trip.
They drove off down the Grade Road toward their entry point and everything seemed fine. They had just picked the car up from the dealer a few days before after its 15,000-mile maintenance check. Just past Lichen Lake, the car suddenly lost power and coasted to a stop at the side of the road. They noticed a few whiffs of what they thought was steam coming out of the floor vents, so they thought perhaps the engine was overheating. When they got out of the car, they immediately heard the unmistakable sound of crackling flames under the hood. They sprang to action and got everything they could get their hands on out of the car. Rees then turned his attention to the nearly new Kevlar canoe on the roof. Before he could get the back end of the canoe untied, the fire had erupted from under the hood and caught the front end of the canoe on fire. As we all know from the Ham Lake fire, Kevlar canoes burn very quickly. All they could do was retreat to a safe distance and take a video of their car and canoe almost literally explode in flame.
Some good Samaritans came along in a few minutes and gave them a ride to Sawbill where we called 911. There is no cell phone service along the Grade Road or the Sawbill Trail. By the way, when I was traveling in very remote parts of east Africa last winter, there was cell service everywhere – usually from three separate providers. What’s wrong with this picture? Anyway, the 911 dispatcher sent a Cook County deputy, the Lutsen fire department (they had just crossed into Lutsen when the fire erupted) and a Forest Service fire engine team to the scene. I gave the Richards a ride back to the scene and when we arrived the car was still burning, but just with a low flame. The fire had been so hot that it blew out the windows and we found glass more than 50 feet away. The alloy wheels were melted, the license plates had melted and the engine block was mostly melted. Only about a foot of the Kevlar canoe was left, lying forlornly in the ditch.
Although it was a routine call, Deputy Julie Collman, the men and women of the Lutsen Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Medical Service, and the Forest Service fire crew all responded quickly and with the utmost professionalism. After the fire was doused, a wrecker dispatched and the nearby woods wetted down for the sake of forest fire safety, I took the Richards back to Sawbill and loaned them my car to get home so they could regroup and take care of the details. I wish the story ended here, but almost unbelievably, they hit a deer on the expressway just outside of Two Harbors. A state trooper happened to be parked at the intersection where they hit the deer and saw the whole thing. It was one of those unavoidable situations that almost everyone who regularly drives the north shore will encounter eventually. Luckily, no one was hurt, except for the deer, of course. The Richards finally made it home safely and Rees said that he just wanted to go to bed and pull the blanket over his head.
All’s well that ends well, but it’s a good reminder for all of us to be extra careful over the big Fourth of July weekend coming up. Get out there and have fun, but be safe!