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Vehicle Fires — Questions Answered by Dennis Curley

In my previous blog post I wrote about how my firefighting crew tried to save a woman who was trapped in her burning car. This incident ended tragically, but I shared the story in the hope that people learn from it.

Looks like my wish came true — because a lot of you asked some great questions looking for more details about what happened, why it happened, and what to do about it. I’ll try to answer a few of those questions here:

Exactly how common are car fires?

A lot more common than most people think. According to the most recent stats from the U.S. Fire Administration, one in seven fires is a vehicle fire, firefighters in America responded to over 180,000 car fires in 2018 and, on average, nearly 2,000 people are killed or injured in vehicle fires each year.

How do most cars start on fire in the first place?

Hollywood movies have convinced the public that when cars crash into each other they instantly burst into flames and then explode while the hero swaggers off in slow motion with his back to the blazing mushroom cloud. Pretty entertaining, I have to admit, but it’s not reality.

As a firefighter, I’ve been up close and personal with a lot of cars fully engulfed in flames and I’ve never seen one explode. Collisions often cause car fires – no doubt about it — but the key to surviving them is to keep calm and to follow the steps I’ve outlined below.

The first step involves some simple vehicle checks. Collisions are not the only cause of car fires — mechanical and electrical problems also lead to many tragic fires.

How did the woman’s car start on fire?

The fire in the woman’s car that I wrote about in the last blog started because of an overheated catalytic converter. This is not an uncommon cause of vehicle fires– especially in older cars.

Catalytic converters (sometimes called “cats”) are designed to reduce pollution from engine exhaust. Engines that have a lot of wear and tear on them pump out dirtier exhaust. This can overwhelm and clog the catalytic converter.

A clogged cat can reach temperatures above 2,000 degrees fahrenheit. This is more than hot enough to ignite a car’s cabin insulation and carpeting through the heat shields and floor pan.

Rapidly spreading flames melt insulation on wires and short out the car’s electrical system (think power windows that won’t roll down and power door locks that won’t open) while toxic smoke quickly fills the car’s interior, posing extreme danger to anyone inside the vehicle.

How can I prevent a fire from happening in my personal vehicle?

One important takeaway here is that first line of defense against vehicle fires is to run a safety check on your vehicle — especially if it has some hard miles on it. Here are some warning signs:

  • You hear loud knocking sounds from the exhaust system. One sign of a worn-out cat is a sound like rocks banging around under a vehicle while it’s running.
  • You smell “rotten eggs” in your exhaust. If the cat is worn out it won’t properly convert the sulfur in gasoline into odorless sulfur dioxide. Dark smoke is sometimes released from the exhaust along with this odor.
  • Your vehicle has fuses that blow repeatedly. This is a sign that your electrical system might have wiring with worn-out insulation. The charged exposed wires can create dangerous sparks.
  • You see oil or other fluid leaks under the vehicle. Sparking wires and flammable liquids are a bad combo — a vehicle fire waiting to happen.
  • You see loose or broken hoses in the engine compartment – another sign of possible fluid leaks.
  • You notice rapid changes in fuel level, oil levels, or engine temperature.

What do I do if my vehicle starts on fire while I’m driving it?

The second line of defense is to be prepared if your vehicle does start on fire. Here’s what to do if you are driving and you find that your vehicle is on fire:

  1. Quickly pull over to a safe spot.
  2. Get yourself and your passengers out of the vehicle and away from it – generally about 100 feet away. Watch out for traffic and do not try to get back into the vehicle to retrieve personal property.
  3. Call 911.
  4. If you use a fire extinguisher, do so at a safe distance from the vehicle and do it with a fire extinguisher approved for Class B and Class C fires.
  5. Be extremely careful opening the hood of your car if you suspect a fire under it — in fact, don’t do it unless you have a decent fire extinguisher and thick gloves. First, the metal latch will be extremely hot and can badly burn your hands. Second, the sudden in-rush of fresh air entering the engine compartment can cause the fire to instantly enlarge.
  6. Don’t get “tunnel vision” by focusing only on the fire. Stay aware of traffic and of the potential danger of being struck by another vehicle.

How do people get trapped inside a burning vehicle?

Vehicle entrapment is a major cause of fatalities in car fires. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a very bad way to die. Getting trapped in your vehicle while it is on fire can happen for a number of reasons:

  1. Electrical. As I said, fire can quickly melt a car’s insulation causing the electrical system to short. Without power, your electric windows and door locks won’t open, effectively trapping you and your loved ones inside the burning vehicle.
  2. Toxic smoke. Think about it — the interior of a car is a pretty small space. Burning carpet and plastic rapidly fills a vehicle’s cabin with carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes. Within seconds, inhaling this smoke can cause you to become disoriented and to fall unconscious.
  3. Crumple Zones. Modern vehicles are designed with “crumple zones” to absorb the energy of a collision and to keep the force of the crash away from the occupants. Unfortunately, the crumpled quarter-panels of the car can wedge doors shut, trapping you inside the crashed vehicle.
  4. Seat belt latches. Heat, collision force, and debris can compromise seat belt latches making them difficult or impossible to unlock.

What do I do if I’m trapped inside a burning vehicle?

  • Need for speed – Car fires grow very rapidly. You need to get out of the vehicle now — before the flames spread and before you are overcome with smoke.
  • S.W.O — This is a simple acronym to help you remember the steps to take if you are trapped inside a vehicle that you need to get out of in a hurry. It stands for Seatbelt, Window, Out.
    1. Seatbelt – If you can’t quickly unlatch the seatbelts of you and your loved ones, you need to cut them off. A small specialized tool can do this safely. As I stated in the previous blog, I recommend a tool like the TRS Lifeline. With the Lifeline, you can safely cut through a seatbelt in literally one second.
    2. Window – If you can’t open your doors or roll down the windows, you need to break a window to get out. Tempered glass is extremely difficult and time-consuming to break without a specialized tool. A sharply pointed striking tool is by far the most effective. There are several good ones on the market, but I admit I really like the Lifeline. It works fast, has proven to be 100% effective — and the tool is easy to access and use because it’s an all-in-one device that combines a window breaker, a seatbelt cutter, and several other tools.
    3. Out – Quickly clear the shattered glass from the window — it will be broken into relatively dull pieces the side of pea gravel. Climb out of the window and move away from the vehicle, being careful to avoid traffic. Follow the steps I outlined earlier in the section about what to do if your vehicle is on fire.

Hopefully this covers many of the questions you all asked about the specifics of preventing and dealing with car fires. Let me know in the comments section what you think.

In the next blog I’m going to delve into another vehicle entrapment situation that has claimed far too many lives — vehicles in water. I’ll cover what to do if you are in a vehicle that somehow ends up in floodwaters or in a lake, river, or canal.

(For more information on the prevention of and actions to take when you have a vehicle fire, visit here.)

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