Fall 2002: Fire!

End of the line.

For the last week or so I had been smelling a funny smell from my Lectra at the end of a ride; something like the smell of a curling iron that has been left on too long. The smell did not really make me think of an electrical fire specifically and I could not locate it. At the end of a ride I would sniff all around the Lectra trying to determine its source.

I had pretty well convinced myself that what I was smelling was fluid from the old, broken front fork seals, which had run down into the front disc brake assembly and was warming up or burning off when I used the front brake. In that case, I expected the smell to fade over time, since the seals were now in good shape.

But on the night of September 13, Friday the 13th, in fact, on my ride home, as I was about a mile from my house, I smelled the smell quite strongly at a stoplight. "I'm going to have to take the faring off completely and find that smell tonight," I thought. "No way that's from the brake assembly." I still thought that what I would find would simply be some browning insulation. I was also wondering about how I might be able to elicit the smell at home, since it would fade quickly at the end of a ride.

Well, I didn't have to worry about locating it. As I parked my bike in the garage, smoke began curling out from under the faring. "That won't be hard to find," I thought. With the key turned off, I wheeled the Lectra down my driveway, out in the open, where I could get a better look at where the smoke was coming from.

As I peeked through the front fork into the battery compartment, I was shocked to see a roaring fire burning merrily on the top of my battery pack! I staggered backward, bewildered. How could the fire be burning if the key was off...? Because, of course, it's a live DC circuit being powered by four mighty batteries! I began to panic, just a little, as I thought about all of the sulfuric acid in the not-so-sealed-now lead-acid batteries, burning cheerily in my driveway.

I ran inside, where my wife, two of her friends, and all of their kids were visiting in the living room. "My motorcycle's on fire!" I shouted. "All you kids stay inside!" my wife ordered. "The fire extinguisher's under the counter!" (She's quick.)

I grabbed the extinguisher, trying to find out quickly whether or not it was safe to use on electrical fires. Yes, it was. I ran back outside to where my bike was burning so loudly now that you could hear the fire crackling from a distance. Acrid smoke billowed out from inside the melting faring, a sickening sight. I shot the extinguisher right through the same hole between the front fork, the place I had spotted the fire. After a couple of shots the fire seemed to be out and my Lectra and the surrounding driveway had that powdered-donut look. The fire was out probably less than a minute after it had ignited. Chalk one up for the Jones Home Fire Safety Program.

(All my pictures are from after the fire was out, obviously; I wasn't going to be snapping pictures of my burning Lectra instead of extinguishing the fire.)

Here's what it looked like when some of the smoke cleared:

In the meantime, my wife had called the fire department anyway. I told her maybe she should call them back and tell them not to bother, as the fire was out, but at the same time, I realized that it would be good to have HAZMAT-aware professionals on the scene, just in case there were some issues with this kind of fire that I was not aware of.

The firemen showed up and helped me disassemble the faring, where we finally saw exactly what kind of damage there was. The first thing they did was locate the main power fuse and disconnect it. The fire had been pretty well restricted to one battery, which had not done a complete meltdown, so I didn't have acid spattering the area. Still, the electronics under the dash were toast, as was my faring, and much of the main power circuit. Pretty bad. They told me about the HAZMAT pickup, once a month at the Eastside City Hall, and how to keep the batteries until then (get a 5-gallon container, put the battery in, and keep it covered).

I am now wondering what I am going to do. The farings are a loss. The dash electronics (which are also, I think, critical to the motor timing -- need to find out) are a loss. The terminal on which the fire started was fused to the ruined battery and I had to snip the wires feeding it clean off, so I would have to replace those cables too. The tires, front fork, charger, motor, sprockets, chain, and main frame all seem to be OK, so there's plenty to salvage, but it's beyond me to be able to return it back to working order.

I also have to figure out what kind of transportation I'm going to use now. Are we at last going to become a two-car family? Maybe I should look at one of those electric bicycles... as soon as I figure out where to put the pieces of the Lectra. Below you can see the final odometer reading: 7006.1 miles.


Read on for the epilogue, about what my insurance company did, my transportation future, and getting audited by the Arizona Department of Revenue.