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Car lions: Family's car bursts into flames while driving through lion safari

What's worse than a car fire? A car fire with hungry lions. A family’s car is a safe haven from lions, unless of course said vehicle is on fire. A UK mother is thankfully able to report that her family is safe after her minivan overheated and caught fire, forcing the family outside of the vehicle and right into the area where roaming lions were watching them. The nightmarish dilemma occurred at the Longleat Safari Park, in Wiltshire, England over the holiday weekend.

What's worse than a car fire? A car fire with lions.
Longleat Safari Park / Facebook

When your vehicle catches on fire, it’s usually a good idea to get out quickly. Unless of course you’re right in the middle of the lion’s preserve, reports CBS News on April 21. Helen Clements had taken her two young children to the safari park, to see some close up views of the spectacular wild game. They didn’t plan on getting this close however.

Clemets said she noticed her van was overheating, and saw what appeared to be steam rising from the hood. “Then it turned to smoke,” Clements said. “So we thought, ‘okay, I think we had better alert somebody.’” Clements was inside the vehicle with her daughter, 12-year-old Charlie, and her son, 9-year-old George.

The 43-year-old mother then repeatedly blew her car horn in order to get the attention of park rangers. While she was waiting for a response, flames start to creep out from under the hood, forcing her into an impossible decision. Should she leave the vehicle and expose themselves to possible lions, or stay inside?

“Then the flames came out of the car, and were obviously coming into the car,” she recalled. “We then thought we had better get out the car, but obviously the rangers were saying get back in the car.” Longleat is home to 12 adult lions, who roam freely inside the enclosure. Visitors to the park drive slowly through the preserve, and the lions are known to come right up to the vehicle windows.

“It was very difficult to know what to do. Get in the car or get out the car,” said Clements, who said that the lions were about 100 yards away at the time. Fortunately, rangers arrived in approximately one minute. Clements said her children were panicking and in tears.

UK’s Daily Mail said that other visitors were waiting in the queue in their vehicles to go through the park, and could see what was happening at a distance. Witnesses said none of the other individuals attempted to assist Clements and her family – likely concerned about getting out and exposing themselves to the lions. One witness who saw what occurred said that had he been in the park near Clements, he would have gotten out and tried to help.

“We wondered what was going on, looked across and saw at first what looked like steam, so we assumed that the car had just overheated,” said Wayne Skinner. “Then we saw the steam getting thicker and turning to smoke. That's when we realized something was wrong. We couldn't really tell from the distance we were, but the mother and two children looked distraught… None of the surrounding cars tried to help; I suppose they were worried about the lions. If we had been closer, we would have tried to get them all into our car. I know it would've been breaking every rule and sign, but it's better to get people to safety first.”

Clements said that when the rangers arrived, her son George immediately started to get out. “George was in the back and opened the door and got out of the car but a ranger shouted, ‘Get back in!’” Clements said. “I shouted back that we can’t – it’s on fire – and opened the driver’s door and started to get out and at that moment the rangers pulled up and we all jumped in with them.”

Clements is happy now to share her story, and because it all turned out well, she said her kids will have quite the tale to tell. “It all happened so quickly it’s difficult to recall exactly what happened, but the children soon calmed down and they’ve now got a wonderful story to tell all their school chums,” Clements said.

A spokesperson for the Longeat park said: "Our main concern was being able to get to the car safely while inside a lion enclosure. On Friday at around 1 p.m. a car overheated in the first lion enclosure at Longleat Safari & Adventure Park. The lions were cleared from the enclosure and the safari park was closed. No one was injured in any way and no lions were hurt. The vehicle has been safely removed and the safari park has fully re-opened to visitors."

As far as going back, Clements said she would be willing to consider it. “I would like to go back and see the lions,” she said. “It wouldn't put me off from going back. It was a little bit frightening, and obviously the children were frightened at the time. You can look back on it now and thank goodness we are all safe, but why did it have to be in the lion enclosure, of all places?”