Things happen in our lives, which we can’t predict, and none of us are immune to things like a car fire.
More than half of vehicle fires are due to technical issues like improper usage or additional equipment installation. It’s not always about whether your car is old or new but more about its condition and maintenance. Fourteen percent of car fires are caused by careless handling of fire, most often by smoking. Arson can also be a cause, of course, but highly unlikely. So what are the more common causes of car fires?
Car Fire Causes
Remember, there is always something in a car that can burn. First of all, fuel and oil are called combustive and lubricating materials for a reason. But in reality, among the most common car fire causes are under the hood due to wiring faults or short circuits.
So, how does a car short circuit? Wires can get too hot if they carry a short-circuit that has too high of a current. Because of the high temperature, the insulation melts and ignites, and consequently, the surrounding parts, made of plastic and other combustible materials, burn. The number of parts covered by fire increases, paintwork gets involved along with tubing, and so on.
Sharp-edged holes in the panels can damage wiring, and so can common pests such as mice and rats, which like to chew on wires. This kind of indirect damage can lead to short circuits and fire.
Insulation faults also result in short circuits and can be caused by rodents, and less frequently, rotating parts making contact causing friction. Another “electrical” cause of the fire could be a contact fault in the power connectors, accompanied by sparks and heating, with consequent insulation ignition. Sometimes, short circuits and contact faults are preceded by failures of electrical equipment, so such failures cannot be ignored.
A more unusual case is a failure of electrical devices that are short-circuited and not protected by fuses (a starter, its drive relay, or a battery switch are examples). As a result, the wires overheat, insulation melts and ignites, and so on. The reason for such failures is the wear of components and the physical aging of the materials.
Interior upholstery and anything flammable in your trunk might also catch fire. Be extra careful when smoking cigarettes and vaping. When carrying extra gasoline in the trunk, make sure the lid is tightly closed.
In addition to wiring, another source of fire is most often the depressurization of the fuel, brake, and cooling systems, with liquids getting on the engine or exhaust system elements. The flame carriers are objects that are next to heavily-heated units. In winter, flame carriers are also referred to as “thermal insulation” usually made of cardboard or fabric. The rest of the year, the flame carriers can often be stuck leaves, twigs, litter particles, or debris, etc.
Fuel leakage can also cause car fires. Overheated or burst fuel line tubing, slimmed filter housing, a dried gasket, an overflowed (due to wrong adjustments) carburetor—all this can make gas or diesel fuel spray the hot parts, (e.g. an exhaust manifold or a muffler). Fuel catches fire and then sets the nearest combustible materials (plastic, sealing, rust-proofing agent, paint) on fire.
If your car starts to reek with fuel, you need to look for traces of leakage and immediately eliminate it. Strangely enough, instead of leaking fuel, sometimes, other foreign objects can be found on the hot exhaust collector, e.g. rags left under the hood, hoses, oil canisters, and so on. Better to be safe than sorry and find that fuel smell source.
Be careful when driving over rough terrains in summer. Grass could become clogged under the car and catch fire via the hot exhaust system. The same situation can occur in towing crossovers and SUVs due to an overheated clutch.
There’s always a good chance to save your car if it catches fire due to technical reasons (if detected in time, of course). The smell of gas or burnt rubber in the interior, smoke coming from under the hood—all these are factors preceding the fire.
Most often, your vehicle will indicate something is wrong, too, through various sensor malfunctions, dashboard alerts, or operation problems.
Even if there are no apparent signs of fire, it’s still better to immediately disconnect one of the battery terminals to remove voltage from the wiring and possibly stop the fire.
What to Do in a Car Fire
So, what do you do if you find signs of fire? The following strategic lines of action are recommended:
- Don’t panic.
- Do not continue to drive in a burning car, and especially do not go faster. Pull over to the side of the road as soon as possible. You generally have no more than a minute and a half to get out of the car if it is on fire (might want to do it faster than that, though).
- Once pulled over to the side of the road, stop the car, turn off the engine, and engage the handbrake.
- Grab your fire extinguisher and leave the car immediately. Don’t forget to help your passengers and retrieve any essentials
- Make sure that the passengers are at a safe distance (at least 25 feet away from the car). You can also ask one of them to call the fire or emergency department or do it yourself.
- Evaluate explosion probability and the probable source of the fire. If the fire is still small and smoldering, try to put it out yourself.
- Examine the car and determine where the fire has started. Typically, it’s a fire that begins under the hood. If the fire is caused by fuel leakage, first extinguish the fuel, then the car.
- Carefully open the hood a little (preferably from the side, using a stick or crowbar) to prevent a rapid flow of oxygen. It is best to do this with two people: one slowly lifts the hood a little, and the other one uses a fire extinguisher.
- If you don’t have a fire extinguisher, apply an insulating material to the place of fire to limit oxygen supply. You can use heavy clothing (a blanket, jacket, or raincoat—don’t forget your wallet, though). As a last resort, you can use sand, unconsolidated ground, snow, or flood with water.
- Aim the extinguisher at the place of fire in the direction from the edge to the center of the fire or cover the fire tightly with a blanket. Extinguish the fire firmly and intensively. Do not stop extinguishing or remove the blanket even if the fire seems to have subsided—it may start again.
- In the meantime, try to disconnect the battery, inspect the fuel lines.
- Don’t forget about your own safety—check your hands and clothes. They could be soaked in fuel vapors.
- If you can’t control the flame, don’t miss the moment when it becomes useless to put out the fire—step aside to avoid getting burnt.
- If the fire started in the engine compartment, and you are not sure of its extent, it is better not to open the hood at all and call the emergency service.
- If the fire starts inside the car, keep the windows and doors shut not to allow any oxygen inside.
- Do not try to put out a big fire yourself as the fuel tank may explode. Make sure everyone is out of the danger zone.
A car fire is always a surprise! Finding out what caused a fire is difficult on your own and can be done in only rare cases (example—when interior upholstery catches fire due to a cigarette).
To receive insurance payments or when there is a possibility of claims to the service or manufacturer, you need a fire report which is issued by a fire chief. If there’s a suspicion of arson, involve the police.
Car Fire Prevention
- Remove any unnecessary items from under the hood. Do not keep rags, wipes, fuel containers, loose bottles/cans there.
- Make sure that the fuel and oil systems are tight, and all cables, hoses, and tubes are properly secured and not in contact with moving or hot parts (pulleys, belts).
- Iridescent spots in your parking area could become a reason for you to have your car serviced.
- Fuel containers must always be secured in the trunk.
- The battery must be securely fastened in place so that no sparks can generate in case of strong vibrations.
- If the car has been idle for a long time, the integrity of the wiring and system tightness should be checked.
- Wipe off fuel or flammable liquids from the car body. Do not use such fluids when cleaning hard-to-remove stains.
- Do not put flammable liquids near electrical outlets and electronic connections inside the car.
- Some cars have autonomous firefighting systems installed under the hood and should activate at high temperatures.
- Refuel at a gas station only when your engine is off.
- Each time you visit a mechanic or car service center, ask them to inspect your car’s fuel lines and wiring for integrity, or do it yourself.
Also, make sure you have a functional fire extinguisher in your car—it’s a real way to reduce damage or even save someone’s life. Keep this in mind, though, the smaller the fire extinguisher, the smaller the area it can handle, and the cheaper it is, the more likely it is to fail during an emergency.
Stay safe, and keep your car as good as new!
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.