FARMINGTON — As thick black smoke poured into the cab of a town-owned plow truck he was driving Saturday morning, Jim Kiernan knew he had to think fast before things got really bad.

He killed the engine, grabbed a fire extinguisher and jumped out of the cab just seconds before the truck burst into flames. Kiernan, 51, phoned for help and tried to extinguish the fire, but it spread too fast.

At that point, all he could was stand alongside Route 156 and watch flames engulf the plow truck. Firefighters arrived shortly thereafter, smothered the blaze with fire retardant foam and put the fire out within a few minutes.

That’s how Kiernan on Monday recalled a narrow escape that would have left most people badly shaken. But as a 27-year veteran plow driver for the town and a former volunteer firefighter, he was more concerned about the truck that was destroyed by the fire.

“I got out all right and was just hoping to get help there in time to save the truck,” Kiernan said.

Farmington Public Works Director Denis Castonguay on Monday said a fuel or oil vapor leak probably caused the fire, calling it a freak accident. He credited Kiernan’s extensive safety training as a plow driver and firefighter with keeping the situation from having a far worse outcome.

Castonguay said Kiernan has attended countless safety training sessions for town plow drivers, who attend meetings at least once a month. He followed the safety policies precisely and kept himself safe, which is the most important thing, Castonguay said.

The plow truck was insured and the town’s insurance company has yet to finish its review of the incident to determine an official cause, he said.

The 2004 Sterling model plow truck had a value of about $90,000, which is expected to be covered by the town’s insurance company. The town will rely on a 20-year-old spare plow truck to fill the gap in the fleet of nine plows for the rest of the season, he said.

Castonguay praised the town’s fire department for saving the truck’s plow apparatus from the fire. The apparatus is worth about $15,000 and will be reused by the fleet, he said.

Kiernan was among the several town plow drivers clearing roads overnight as a storm dumped several inches of snow in the area.

He started Friday night and had been driving for about 12 hours before taking a four hour break, Castonguay said.

Kiernan went back out Saturday morning to finish cleaning up a bit of slush along his route. That’s when the fire occurred at about 10:30 a.m. on a section of Route 156, locally known as Lucy Knowles Road.

Castonguay said the plow truck didn’t have any maintenance issues and was scheduled to be replaced within the next four years. The town typically replaces at least one truck in its fleet per year as part of its fleet management, he said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]