How Vehicle Fires Affect Driver Safety During Fire Season

For most of us, vehicle fires seem an infrequent event that often leads to a cataclysmic explosion. Outside Hollywood, the explosions don’t happen so much, but the fires still do. Nationwide, 17 car fires are reported every hour, and some of them are preventable with a little fire awareness.

Two-thirds of vehicle fires start by an electrical short, or some other malfunction of the car itself–not from a car accident collision, although the majority of fire-related deaths do occur in collisions, due to occupants being unable to exit a vehicle.

The first sign of fire most people notice is a smell of burning plastic or oil. And if this doesn’t pass quickly, the recommended advice is to pull over as quickly and safely as possible and investigate. Electrical shorts can happen nearly everywhere on a vehicle, not just under the hood. So standard car accident safety recommendations are to maintain awareness of your entire car, as sometimes fires start under a car, trailing smoke and perhaps flames, while the driver is unaware.

In Northern California, a flatbed truck on fire drove on for miles trailing hot embers from its load of burning hay, starting more than a dozen small fires. When the driver finally became aware of the fire, he called CHP and the fires were extinguished surprisingly easily.

black car pulls off to side of road due to vehicle fire

If flames or smoke do begin pouring from the engine compartment, most industry experts recommend not trying to put the fire out by yourself. The act of opening the hood increases the airflow, which increases the flames. Additionally, since most vehicle hoods have a secondary manual latch on the hood itself, one would have to reach through roaring flames to unhook a latch. And everybody fumbles with that thing. I do.

California Fires Started by Vehicles

Fall season is also prime fire season in Northern California, and vehicle fires start close to 10% of them. Which seems like a low number, but these represent easily preventable fires. Chiefly, modern vehicles have a device called the “catalytic converter,” under them, and it operates so hot that it can easily start a fire. CHP officers say they routinely start fires when driving over center divides, when the converter makes contact with dry grass.

But the CHP are trained, equipped with a fire extinguisher, and from routine, expect they will start a fire.

Liability in Car Fire Accidents

A driver in Bakersfield, driving off road, started a wildfire that burned 29,000 acres and six buildings, when he became stuck and rolled back into dry grass which then caught fire. The driver was sentenced to over a year in jail and $61 million in restitution for negligence for “taking no action” to get help after starting the fire.

One’s insurance liability for these various fire-related scenarios differ, and so does typical coverage. Basic liability car insurance will cover a collision, but not an electrical fire, or any other instance of a car somehow catching fire on its own. And liability for someone’s car starting a wildfire can possibly result in imprisonment and enormous fines, like the Bakersfield driver.

But generally, prosecutions for starting a wildfire are more subjective than clerical, with intent an important element of defense. Each year it seems there is at least one big case of someone being prosecuted for starting a devastating fire. Many of those are deliberate arson cases, but sometimes a person’s actions after starting a fire — however innocently, can lead to charges. If you’ve suffered a personal injury as the result of someone’s negligence in starting a fire, legal representation is certainly encouraged.

Catalytic Converter’s Role in Vehicle Fires

In normal operation, a catalytic converter doesn’t even start working until it reaches 600 degrees, and temperatures of up to 1,200 degrees are common. Yet many people are unaware and unconcerned that this device is under their car. It’s not really new — it was invented in the 70s to curb pollution — but certainly more older people are surprised when informed of its presence.

This video shows a modified exhaust so that you can see the converter in action. The extreme heat is part of the process of converting exhaust gases into two elements, carbon dioxide and water, helping to filter a large part of emissions responsible for smog and ground level ozone.

catalytic converter, up against white background, can cause vehicle fires due to its high temperatures

So. “Stay off the grass” with this thing. Sounds easy. But, there is an additional converter danger too: superheated bits of ceramic from inside the converter routinely shoot out the tailpipe, starting fires.

Fire departments found the source of two fires in two weeks in San Diego to be faulty converters. They traced the fires back and found large broken pieces of the inside structure, a honeycomb made of mostly ceramic, but which also includes precious metals such as platinum.

Investigators say that if people hear a rattling under their car, it is often a loose tin heat shield for the converter, but it could also be the honeycomb structure breaking down and rattling around, leading to poor engine performance and super-hot pieces of ceramic exiting the exhaust system.

Most experts agree that when a driver notices they have a fire, their first responsibility and duty is to safely steer their car out of traffic to avoid a car accident, then get everyone out of the vehicle. Unless sufficiently trained, motorists are warned to resist the impulse to try extinguishing a fire on their own. First responders routinely treat people injured from trying to put out a fire, not a result of the fire itself.

How Should You Respond?

In early 2017 Portugal had a tragic wildfire where many of the 62 people who died were in their cars. The local nature of this fire, terrain and limited roads, led to a gridlock and drivers had nowhere to go. California officials recently noted that sightseers driving to view the 2017 eclipse might likewise fill up and gridlock major roads at the height of the state’s fire season. Luckily, nothing serious was reported.

There’s a wikihow on surviving a fire in a car, but the first point it makes is to avoid being stuck in the car if you can. A metal vehicle offers no protection from the soaring radiant heat, and due to smoke and the lack of air in a forest fire, a car could stall while trying to drive through.

According to State Farm’s article on responding to vehicle fires, upon realizing that a fire has started, the first step is to signal and drive to the side of the road. Then stop the car and get everyone out and away (at least 1000 feet) from the car. Call 911 and alert oncoming traffic. Finally, if you or someone you know was injured due to a vehicle fire, call car accident lawyer Frank Penney.

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