Jim Heath was the only one awake in the back of his tour bus when he first smelled the smoke. He and his band, Dallas vets Reverend Horton Heat, were passing through Oceanside, California, early Wednesday morning on their way from a show in Hollywood to another one that night in San Diego. It was a little after 4:00 a.m. At first, Heath figured they were just driving past a fire and continued practicing his guitar.
"But then I [smelled] it again a few seconds later, and I was going, 'No, that's not right," says Heath, who's been the frontman for Horton Heat for over 30 years. Then it dawned on him: It was the tour bus that was on fire. "I put on my shoes and by the time I got my shoes on, the whole thing was starting to fill up with smoke. It was crazy how quickly it came in."
Heath made his way to the front of the bus to tell the driver who, like him, had thought he was simply smelling something they'd passed on the road. "Being way up front, he wasn't really aware of how bad it was getting in the rest of the cabin," Heath says. "Everybody was coughing. It was hard for him to see to pull over; that was the scariest part."
He lets out a gravely laugh. "It was very, very quick."
The band was lucky: While Heath and the driver were the only ones awake when the fire started, all seven of the people on board the bus, including the tour manager, escaped unharmed. Their gear, too, was safe, as most of it was being towed in a trailer behind the bus.
"After all these years of traveling around, we’ve never had something that serious happen," Heath admits. "We're pretty lucky we avoided that all these years, and when we did have a problem, nobody got hurt or anything."
The bus had pulled over not far from the Camp Pendleton fire station, meaning the fire hadn't spread too far by the time the fire department arrived.
"It took them a while to put out the fire. It was really hot," says Heath. "But the cabin was fine. Besides the smoke, they didn't have to douse water or anything. We had computers and stuff, but we didn't lose any equipment or anything."
Showing up just about as quickly was the local news team from San Diego's ABC 10 KGTV. "It was early in the morning, so guess the local news, they're always driving around waiting for some accident to happen," says Heath. "Just about as soon as it happened, we were out there [on the side of the road] and the news was there. We’re in pajamas and they're like, 'What happened?' And we’re like, 'Whoa! You got here quick!'"
It's still not clear what exactly caused the fire, but Heath says they believe it started in the bus's generator. "The driver had some tools that were in the bay right next to the generator and it completely melted all those tools," he says. He figures the bus is likely a write-off. Fortunately, that won't cause any trouble for the band.
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"I've never bought a bus. I've always leased it. So it's not our bus to worry about," Heath says. "The bus company found us a different bus. It's from a different company, but they're out here so we can finish the tour."
In fact, not only did Horton Heat not have to cancel any shows, but the band didn't even miss its gig in San Diego that night. (Even if they do still, as Heath puts it, "smell like the barbecue band.") That was a big surprise to KGTV, who showed up at the venue and talked to the tour manager while Heath was still at the hotel.
"They're going, 'You're going to still play the show?'" Heath says. He lets out a hearty laugh. "Man, you don't know what this is. It would take probably a massive power outage to keep us from playing a show. We would do it no matter what."