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Vehicle Fires: Causes, Personal Safety, and Prevention

December 8, 2015

Vehicle fires are an often-overlooked part of car safety and care. However, they can be one of the most dangerous situations in which drivers and passengers may find themselves. In 2013 (the most recent year with complete data), there were 164,000 vehicle fires in the United States; those fires caused 300 deaths, 925 injuries, and approximately 1.1 billion dollars in damage. In order to prevent vehicle fires, and the injuries caused by them, it is important to know what types of vehicle fires there are. Additionally, it is vital to know the causes and means by which to prevent vehicle fires.

Often, finding the origin of a vehicle fire is a difficult task. Modern vehicles are equipped with flame-retardant materials. However, there are still many components that are highly flammable. Many vehicle fires begin due to ignition of polyurethane foam, anti-freeze, or gasoline, for example.


Common Causes of Vehicle Fires

Polyurethane foam is a stock material in vehicles. It is often found throughout the interior of vehicles in the seats, dashboard, and door panels. When ignited, polyurethane foam can burn with the force of gasoline. Although this may sound frightening, these are the most preventable fires in cars. It is important to remember not to light any flammable materials within a vehicle and to ensure that the interior of the vehicle never comes in contact with flames, embers, or materials that are red hot.

Antifreeze fires are the most common in older vehicles, as there is a higher likelihood that the fluid will spill onto hot surfaces within the engine. If an antifreeze fire occurs, the engine will often smoke before igniting the liquid. This is due to the relatively low burning point for antifreeze, which is 231 degrees Fahrenheit with an auto-ignition temperature of 770 degrees Fahrenheit; the manifold and turbo charger in a standard vehicle run much hotter than the auto-ignition point for antifreeze. It is important to regularly check your engine or have a vehicle professional check it for you to help avoid antifreeze fires.

Gasoline fires happen due to failures in fuel line connections or issues with the carburetor or the fuel injection system. Although there is a pressurized failsafe built in to modern vehicles that shuts down fuel lines that begin to leak, any stray spark or open flame can cause a gasoline fire. The benefit of the built-in system is that once a fire is ignited more fuel will not be added to the fire, as was once the case. However, gasoline ignites nearly instantly, so if there is a spark or ember near a leaking fuel line, fires can and will start. Fires caused by carburetor or fuel injection system failures are more difficult to prevent and are often more devastating. First, these areas of the engine have a steady stream of gasoline flowing through them adding to the initial fire. Additionally, many modern cars have fuel lines that are made of plastic, which makes it more difficult to find the point of origin for a leak. Regular maintenance of a vehicle can help prevent gasoline fires from occurring, however.


What to Do in a Vehicle Fire

Although the causes of vehicle fires are various, it is important to take action quickly if you are ever involved in a vehicle fire. First, get yourself and all other passengers out of the vehicle immediately. Leave any belongings behind, and move at least 100 feet away from the vehicle. It is important to keep your distance in order to prevent immediate injury due to flames and heat coming off of the vehicle. It is also important to stay far away from the vehicle to avoid injuries from inhaling toxic chemicals in the smoke. Next, call 911 as soon as possible and try to warn other drivers to stay clear of the burning vehicle.


Vehicle Fires and Personal Injury Law

While getting behind on routine maintenance is one of the reasons for vehicle fires, a host of other issues can cause or complicate a vehicle fire. Defective parts, design flaws, and manufacturing failures can cause a vehicle fire in situations where none would have occurred or can turn what would have been a small fire into a much more devastating event. If you or someone you know has been injured in a vehicle fire, it is in your best interest to contact a personal injury attorney like Bill Cook for a free consultation to determine if you deserve restitution for your injuries. Call our offices at (907) 694-2000 or fill out a brief online form to schedule your free consultation.



Higgins, M. (n.d.). Vehicle fires: A practical approach. K-Chem Laboratories. Retrieved October 13, 2015 from

National Fire Protection Association. (2010, June). Vehicle fire trends and patterns. NFPA. Retrieved from

National Fire Protection Association. (2015). Vehicle safety tips. NFPA. Retrieved from


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