Behind the Scenes of Ken Block’s Rally Car Fire

When the Hoonigan Escort Cosworth burst into flames, it was a challenge to contain and extinguish the fire.

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Behind the Scenes of Ken Block’s Rally Car Fire © Behind the Scenes of Ken Block’s Rally Car Fire

News of the sudden demise of Ken Block's 1991 Ford Escort Cosworth at the New England Forest Rally spread across the internet almost as quickly as the fire engulfed the car. Block and co-driver Alex Gelsomino escaped unharmed, but the burning car threatened to set the surrounding forest on fire, potentially endangering the numerous nearby spectators. 

As the journalist I am, I'm not supposed to become a part of the story, but as a rally volunteer, I was part of the team that prevented this from happening and kept both spectators and other competitors safe.

I was one of two amateur radio operators stationed at the midpoint of Special Stage 4, Icicle Brook. This stage is infamous for the start and finish radios not being able to hear each other due to a tall hill between them. We were stationed on that hill, and it was up to us to not only track passing competitors as we usually do, but also to relay information between the start and finish. It was business as usual as we started the stage. David Higgins, Travis Pastrana, and Jeff Seehorn passed us, followed by Ken Block in his Escort.

Minutes later my radio blared, "Emergency, emergency, this is checkpoint Bravo, we have a car on fire." Checkpoint Bravo was a spectator area near the finish. Our stage captain was at the start, and the other radio operator and I knew he would not be able to hear Bravo directly, meaning that our job as the midpoint relay was about to get quite busy. Over the next several minutes we listened and relayed as Block's own attempts to put out the fire were unsuccessful. The competitor behind Block arrived on the scene, and their extinguishers proved inadequate as well. The fire was just spreading too quickly.

The stage captain gave the word to shut down the stage and display the red cross to competitors, a universal signal which obligates them to stop for an emergency. This would not only prevent competitors from driving into the area of the fire at full speed but also clear the road for emergency crews. We ended up stopping two cars ourselves and got them off the road. As soon as all competitors were accounted for, fire crews rushed to the fire from both the start and the finish simultaneously. The rally sweep crew was later sent in as well.

Despite their best efforts, the fire had now spread to the surrounding forest, and even more fire crews were called in. It was at this point that we learned that part of the problem was the magnesium components in Block's car. Magnesium is quite quick to burn and extremely difficult to put out. Water only feeds the fire more, but fortunately, everyone had been using extinguishers and foam. The additional fire crews were finally able to contain the fire and start putting it out.

As the emergency came under control, attention then turned to the logistics of getting the remaining 50 or so competitors behind Block off the stage and back to the service area. The road by the fire was completely occupied by fire crews, so the debate was whether to wait until the road was reopened to have competitors transit slowly through the stage to head back, or to send them back to the main road from the start and avoid the stage entirely. At this point, there was so much communication going on between officials that I was pulled to a secondary frequency to relay logistics while the primary frequency continued to help coordinate emergency efforts. Finally, as the sun began to set, my partner and I were told (and relayed) that competitors at the start would make their way directly to the main road and leave, while competitors stopped on stage and workers would proceed past the now extinguished fire and through the finish. We sent the competitors first, then made our own way down the stage.

Our stage captain would later tell us that this situation was the second worst case scenario that could possibly happen at a rally. Fortunately, no one was hurt (that would be the worst case scenario), and emergency crews were dispatched quickly enough to get the fire under control before it started consuming the forest and put the nearby spectators in danger. Our stage crew was complimented from the highest level at how well we handled it. It was a serious team effort, and it exemplifies why we have the safety net we do in place at rallies.

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