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When there's smoke...

Fire crews from the Stratton and Swindon stations raced to the side of the M4 to put out a van fire on 26th September. Racing dog vet and agility competitor Sarah Cochrane had picked up a rescue dog to join her racing team just 30 minutes before the incident. Thankfully no one was injured, and all the dogs inside were okay. Sarah has kindly agreed to share what she learned from her frightening experience with people on the Agilitynet website in the hope it might help other people who travel with multiple dogs.

A while back, I was travelling home in my van on my own with eight dogs on board, when I noticed the passenger seat was smoking. I pulled over and discovered that the fuse box under the passenger seat was on fire. When first spotted, the fire was small and potentially controllable. However, I did not have an extinguisher on board. I attempted to put it out with a heavy blanket but that wasn't effective.

By chance, an ambulance came by a few minutes after I called the fire service, and they stopped to help. They had two extinguishers on board. However, neither of them would deploy. One was missing a piece and the handle of the other snapped as it was activated.

The fire went very suddenly from being manageable to consuming the front of the vehicle. It only took seconds once the passenger seat caught fire. The whole of the front of the van went very rapidly.

Luckily, I was able to get all the dogs out. I had moved the ones closest to the fire immediately, and once the fire became uncontrollable it just became a case of get them all out as rapidly as possible. I will be forever grateful to the ambulance driver and to the members of the public who stopped and ran towards a burning vehicle to take my dogs from me as I pulled them out. Without their help, I wouldn't still have them all.

So here's what I did wrong
Please take whatever points you can from it. Hopefully no one here will ever need it, but just in case:-

  • I did not have an extinguisher. If I had, this would have been a non-event.
  • The vehicle extinguishers the ambulance had did not deploy. If you have extinguishers, check they are still intact and in date, and that you know how they work.
  • Not all my dogs were wearing collars or grab tags. I had to rugby tackle one of them to stop her escaping up the M4. Because I didn't catch her cleanly as I opened the crate door, there was nothing to grab. Another one of my dogs slipped his collar. Fortunately, by that point, the motorway was at a standstill.
  • I did not have enough leads to attach everyone, so I ended up using a couple of Cani-X lines. With hindsight, it probably would have been better to have leads without bungees!

Have a plan
Know who you are going to call in case of emergency, and check your vehicle contents insurance. The insurance company paid out for the van, but I had declined excess cover for contents, and had also declined 'away from home' cover on my house insurance. There was about 3000 worth of stuff in the vehicle, none of which was salvageable and sadly, it turned out, also not covered by insurance.

I was exceptionally lucky in that we were fairly close to the place where I work, and a passerby was happy putting all of my dogs into the back of his van to move them there where I had people I could call on to help. Be aware that the blue light services do not have any kind of protocol for moving large numbers of animals off the motorway.

Ideally, keep hold of your wallet, phone and keys, or place them somewhere in the vehicle where they can easily be grabbed and thrown clear. My phone was in the van. After calling the fire service, for reasons which will forever remain a mystery, I put it onto the passenger footwell to turn my attention back to the fire. It made organising the rest of the night even more challenging! In one respect, it's the least important of the points above, but is the one with the long term impact. Getting new everything is an extra hassle.

Someone suggested fitting an isolator, a mechanical switching device used for isolating a circuit or equipment from a source of power. In this case, it might not have stopped the crazy, but it might have slowed the fire down or enabled me to put the fire out with a blanket. It is something I will look into as a safety feature for the next van.

Finally, if you were caught in the nine mile tailback on the westbound M4 yesterday, I apologise. It was me.

About the author...

Sarah Cochrane is a sports medicine and rehab vet based in Wales but working nationally and internationally. She has a couple of agility dogs and a team of racing sled dogs, all of whom were in the van with her. 

Despite the literal baptism of fire, the new arrival is settling in well, and all the dogs appear entirely unfazed by their experience.



Sally Jones...
First thing I did upon reading this was to buy fire extinguishers. I also got them for the home along with fire blankets. You can now buy extinguishers that work on all types of fires so in an emergency you don't have to think, "hmm, is this an electrical fire or some other sort? Which extinguisher should I grab?" (2nd November 2021)

Firexo 7 in 1 Fire extinguisher
500ml Small Fire Extinguisher for ALL FIRES

Alison Calcutt...
Thankyou for sharing. I bought a fire extinguisher the same day I saw this on Facebook and changed what I do with my dogs. Now they all wear their harnesses in the car and their leads are clipped to the outside of their cage door. (rd November 2021)


First posted on Agilitynet FB on 27th September and then published here on 30th October 2021.


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