Trials by Fire: California Wildfires and the Iowa School Bus Tragedy

James Blue
Posted on January 10, 2018
A federal study found that school bus fires in the U.S. occur slightly more than daily. File photo courtesy NYPD
A federal study found that school bus fires in the U.S. occur slightly more than daily. File photo courtesy NYPD

Here in Southern California, we were following the reports of our own devastating blazes in early December when shocking news came out of Iowa: Two people had died in a school bus fire.

The Iowa incident occurred on Dec. 12 in a rural area near the small town of Oakland. School bus driver Donald Hendricks was picking up 16-year-old student Megan Klindt at the farm where she lived.

Local authorities said that the bus driver had apparently backed into a roadside ditch when the fire broke out. The bus became engulfed in flames, and Hendricks and Klindt died in the fire.

As of this writing, it was still not clear why the driver and passenger were not able to evacuate from the bus. Lt. Rob Ambrose of the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office told SBF on the day of the incident that “it is believed that they could not get out the door normally used [the front door].” But there was no word yet regarding the emergency exits.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to Iowa to investigate the school bus fire. The agency expected to release its preliminary findings a few weeks after its onsite work, but the investigation will likely continue for at least another year before a full report is released.

Let’s hope that NTSB will eventually be able to shed light on what caused the fire and what kept the driver and student from escaping. The latter question is extremely troubling.

For insights on school bus fires in general, we can turn to a federal report that was released about a year ago. The study, titled “Motorcoach and School Bus Fire Safety Analysis,” was conducted by the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

Researchers compiled data on school bus and motorcoach fire incidents from 2004 to 2013, then analyzed the data to identify trends and common factors.

According to the Volpe study, most motorcoach and school bus fires start in the engine area, running gear, or wheel area of the vehicle. For the incidents in which the area of origin was known, 68% of school bus fires originated in one of those areas, and in “a significant number” of those fires, an electrical wire was cited as the first item to have been ignited.

In the incidents that Volpe analyzed, the most frequent cause of ignition was failure of equipment or heat source.

The researchers found that school bus fires in the U.S. occur slightly more than daily, while motorcoach fires occur slightly less than daily.

All of this reinforces the importance of conducting annual or semiannual school bus evacuation drills with students and, during daily pre-trip inspections, checking to make sure all emergency exits are functional.  

No one wants to imagine their bus bursting into flames, but it’s a contingency that everyone who transports students needs to be fully prepared for.

As for the wildfires in Southern California, fortunately no one on the SBF team has been directly affected, beyond some smoky conditions. Many others haven’t been so fortunate. At press time, the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had burned more than 270,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, and claimed the life of a firefighter.

If you’re inclined to contribute to the recovery efforts, the United Way of Ventura County launched a Thomas fire fund, with 100% of donations going to those affected. Donations can be made at

Related Topics: bus fires, California, Iowa, NTSB

James Blue General Manager
Comments ( 3 )
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  • Dee

     | about 11 months ago

    Did the driver continue driving after backing into the ditch? (Appears so as the bus is solidly on the roadway. Who saw the bus back into the ditch? Did they not say what they thought the reason the driver backed into a ditch? Many oddities on this story. As for the prior comment. I always found it fascinating that drivers did not pre- and post trip. They cry for more hours yet they neglect the proper pre-post trips that add 40 minutes. (Yes the bus is as cold as a coffin on winter days, and hotter then a oven in the summer. But, be thankful your not a roofer in summer or winter.) Do the inspections and be secure in the vehicle, and then take the money (pay) and run.

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