What are the odds that your vehicle might be involved in a car fire? Pretty low according to the U.S. National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Government statistics always lag behind current conditions by several years, but from 2014 through 2016 there were an average of 171,500 vehicle fires per year reported to the NFIRS.
The U.S. vehicle population is about 270 million vehicles, so the odds of your vehicle catching fire is only about one in 1579. Those are pretty slim odds. Even so, car fires can and do happen as a result of electrical or mechanical failures or an accident with deadly results. Nearly 350 people die every year as a result of car fires, and 1,300 are burned.
So what do the stats tell us about car fires?
Nearly one out of every eight fires that fire departments respond to involve vehicle fires.
Eighty-three percent of highway vehicle fires occurred in passenger vehicles.
Less than nine percent of vehicle fires involve heavy-duty trucks.
Sixty-two percent of highway vehicle fires and 36 percent of fatal highway vehicle fires originated in the engine, running gear or wheel area of the vehicle.
Forty-five percent of highway vehicle fires are the result of some type of mechanical failure.
Twenty-nine percent of highway fires were the result of electrical shorts in vehicle wiring.
Eighteen percent of highway fires were due to flammable liquid leaks (gasoline or diesel fuel)
Sixty percent of fatal vehicle fires were the result of a collision.
Twenty-four percent of car fires occur during the day between 2 to 6 pm, and the most common time for a car fire is from 3 to 4 pm.
Car fires can occur during any time of year, but are more common during summer months (May through August) and peak in July.
The above information reported to the NFIRS only includes "unintentional" or "accidental" fires and does not include "intentionally set" or "suspicious" fires such as someone torching their car to collect insurance or someone setting a vehicle on fire to conceal evidence or a crime.
If you smell gasoline or see a puddle under your vehicle that would indicate a fuel leak, it represents a very dangerous situation.
WARNING: Do NOT smoke anywhere near a fuel leak, or operate any type of electrical equipment that might generate a spark. A fuel leak must be repaired without delay.
If the vehicle is parked inside a garage, push it or roll it out of the garage without starting the engine. This will reduce the risk of a fire damaging your garage or home should the leaking fuel ignite. The vehicle should then be towed (not driven) to a repair shop for repairs unless you are capable of doing the repairs yourself.
NEVER drive a vehicle if it has a fuel leak! Gasoline dripping or spraying onto a hot engine or the exhaust system can ignite and start a serious fire.
Also, when refueling your car, turn your engine OFF and Do NOT smoke or vape!
It is also a good idea not to slide in and out of your vehicle while refueling because static electricity may generate a spark that could potentially ignite fuel vapors.
The warning not to use your cell phone while refueling has been mostly debunked. The battery inside a cell phone produces no sparks, and the radio signals from the phone will not start a fire. Even so, put your phone down and pay attention to what you are doing. People who are distracted by their phones while refueling may forget to remove the nozzle from their fuel tank before they drive away, ripping the hose from the pump. A safety valve inside the hose coupling is supposed to prevent fuel spillage from a broken hose, but safety valves don't always work as they should.
Also, be careful not to spill gasoline on your vehicle or the ground while refueling. Gas pump nozzles have a pressure sensor inside that is supposed to click off (release) the nozzle handle when it senses fuel vapor backing up in your gas tank filler tube. Automatic shut-offs do not always work as they should, so pay attention and don't overfill your tank. If you do accidentally spill fuel on the ground, notify the station attendant so they can clean up the spill before it creates a potential fire hazard for other customers.
A leaky metal, plastic or rubber fuel line is fairly easy to replace. Just make sure you use "approved" fuel hose that has the proper pressure rating for a fuel injected engine. Do NOT use carburetor fuel hose, vapor hose, emissions hose or other types of hose on a high pressure fuel injected engine.
On older vehicles with carburetors or lower pressure fuel systems, replace the original clamps with new ones when changing a hose or fuel filter. The fuel lines on newer vehicles have quick release hose/line couplings, which require a special quick release tool to separate the connections. Replace any o-rings or seals as required.
A leaky fuel tank (steel or plastic) can sometimes be patched with epoxy putty if the leak is small. The recommended repair is to replace the leaky fuel tank with a new tank. Installing a used fuel tank from a junk yard vehicle may be a less expensive repair option, but used steel tanks are often rusty inside. The rust can flake loose and damage the fuel pump or clog the fuel filter. Used plastic tanks won't contain any rust but they can contain dirt which will have the same effect.
NEVER attempt to weld, braze or solder a leaky steel fuel tank. Even if you drain the tank and flush it with water, residual gasoline vapors will remain inside the tank and may explode if exposed to heat or flame.
Motor oil leaking from the engine or an oil supply line can ignite and burn if it comes into contact with the exhaust system
Little known fact: Antifreeze can even catch on fire if it gets hot enough. Ethylene Glycol will actually burn if it gets hotter than 760 degrees F, and the vapors can auto-ignite if exposed to temps above 250 degrees F. A leaking radiator, radiator hose or heater hose that sprays antifreeze on a hot exhaust manifold or pipe could therefore start a fire in the engine compartment.
Electrical shorts can happen without warning. Wires rubbing against a sharp metal edge can wear through the protective insulation that surrounds the wires causing one or more wires to short circuit. The result can be a runaway electrical current that quickly overheats and burns the wiring. This type of problem may occur under the instrument panel, inside a door, in the trunk or cargo area, or under the hood. A wiring harness that is too short, too long or not properly supported by experience excessive movement resulting in a short.
The plastic insulation around wiring can also be damaged by nearby heat sources such as engine exhaust manifolds and exhaust pipes. Severe engine overheating may also damage or melt wiring on or around the engine. Rodents chewing on wiring is another common cause of wiring shorts and fires.
The first line of protection against short circuits is the fuse box in your vehicle. All original equipment wiring circuits are protected by fuses, circuit breakers and/or fuse links that blow or open if the current exceeds the safe limit for a circuit. Stopping the flow of current should prevent the wiring from getting so hot that it melts the insulation or starts a fire.
Electrical circuits inside a vehicle (sound system, climate control, power windows, seats, interior lights, etc.) are typically protected by low amperage fuses may range from 2 or 3 amps up to 20 to 30 amps. The interior fuse box is usually located under the instrument panel or behind the passenger or driver kick panel below the dash or glovebox. Higher load electrical circuits such as the headlights, starting and charging systems, fuel injectors, fuel pump, electric radiator fans, etc. are protected by high amp fuses (30 to 100 amps or more) in a power distribution center in the engine compartment.
If your vehicle has blown a fuse, there is a reason why. The circuit may have experienced a temporary overload (snow clogged wiper blades, for example), or it may have a short circuit. If a new fuse blows as soon as you install it or try the circuit, there is a short circuit that needs to be identified and repaired.
Do NOT drive the vehicle that keeps blowing fuses until the electrical problem has been diagnosed and repaired.
Also, NEVER replace a blown fuse with one that has a higher amp rating because doing so may allow a dangerous overload in the circuit that could overheat the wiring and start a fire. ALWAYS replace blow fuses with ones that have the exact same amp rating. The amp rating is usually marked on the fuse.
Hybrid vehicles are especially dangerous because of their high voltage batteries which may range from 36 to 48 volts in a simple idle stop/start system to over 300 volts in a plug-in hybrid or electric car. Hybrid vehicles also have a conventional 12-volt battery for the vehicle's electrical system and accessories, but the hybrid drive system requires much higher voltages.
Hybrid vehicles have voltage sensors that can detect most shorts in the high voltage system. If a short is detected, the protection system will disconnect the high voltage battery to isolate it from the vehicle body so you are not shocked or electrocuted.
High voltage hybrid wiring is usually color coded ORANGE, so do NOT touch any ORANGE wires. If there is a short or other electrical problem in the hybrid system, take your vehicle to a new car dealer or a repair shop that is qualified to work on hybrid electrical systems. Many repair shops still lack the proper training and know-how to service hybrid electrical systems.
Plug-in electric vehicles that have high voltage lithium ion battery packs (Tesla, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Bolt, etc.) are usually far safer than gasoline-powered vehicles in an accident because there is no fuel tank to rupture or catch fire. However, an electric car can still catch fire if the hybrid battery pack is punctured or damaged. A lithium battery with an internal short will experience thermal runaway, which may cause the battery pack to explode in flames and burn extremely hot. Such fires can be very difficult to extinguish and require flooding the battery with tons of water to cool the battery. Sometimes a hybrid battery fire cannot be extinguished by first responders and must burn itself out (which can take hours!).
Over the years, auto makers have issued numerous safety recalls pertaining to real and potential fire hazards in certain vehicles. Many of these recalls have been voluntary while others have been ordered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) following an investigation into consumer complaints involving car fires.
One of the most famous and expensive safety recalls was by Ford to replace ignition switches in nearly 8 million 1988 to 1993 cars and trucks. A design flaw in the switches caused some switches to short out and start a fire in the steering column even when a vehicle was parked and the engine was off (NHTSA 96V0-071).
In 2005 and 2009, Ford recalled 4.5 million vehicles to fix a faulty cruise control system that could overheat and start a fire.
Audi issued a safety recall (NHTSA 17V298000) for nearly a quarter million 2013-2017 Audi Q5 and Q7 models to inspect and fix (as needed) a fuel pump flange that could crack, leak fuel and start a fire.
VW had a couple of recallsl (NHTSA 15V028000 and 14V809000) regarding possible fuel leaks on the engine fuel injector rails of about 80,000 2014-2015 Beetle, Golf, Jetta and Passat models after fuel leaks caused a number of car fires.
In February 2019, KIA and Hyundai issed a recall for 500,000 vehicles over concerns the engine may catch fire. Over 300 engine fires have been reported in the following vehicles: 2012 to 2016 Kia Soul with 1.6-liter engines, 2011 to 2013 Hyundai Tucson, and 2011 to 2012 Kia Sportage.
The list of fire-related recalls goes on and on. Vehicle manufacturers are supposed to maintain a database of vehicle owners so motorists can be notified by mail if there is a recall. But for older vehicles that have changed owners several times, there may be no record of who currently owns a vehicle.
Our advice is to check with your new car dealer to see if any safety recalls have been issued for your vehicle. Repairs (if needed) are free and should be made ASAP to reduce the risk of a fire from occurring.
You can also visit the official NHTSA government website at https://www.safercar.gov/ to see if your vehicle is subject to any recalls. Just enter the year, make and model of your vehicle or its VIN number to check for recalls.
If you smell something burning while driving or sitting in your vehicle, or if you see smoke inside your car or coming from under the hood or any other part of your vehicle, STOP as soon as possible, shut the engine off and get out of your car. Get any other passengers or pets out of the vehicle too, and leave anything else. Get everyone well away from your car and call 911 for help.
NOTE: An engine that is overheating because of a cooling issue may produce steam from under the hood. Steam is not smoke and does not indicate your vehicle is on fire. However, steam is HOT and can cause burns if it comes into contact with your hands or skin. Steam will be white and have a slightly sweet smell due to the antifreeze in the coolant. Smoke from a fire will be brown or black and smell like something is burning. If flames are visible, your car is definitely on fire!
Should try to put out a car fire yourself? The macho answer might be yes IF you carry a fire extinguisher in your vehicle or you can find one nearby in a hurry, An electrical or flammable liquid fire requires a fire extinguisher that is rated B & C (or ABC). Water will not extinguish an electrical, gasoline or diesel fuel fire.
Trying to put out a car fire yourself is dangerous. A car fire can flare up explosively and overwhelm your puny efforts to put it out with a little hand held extinguisher. Trying to open the hood to put out a fire in the engine compartment may expose your hands or face to heat or flames that could burn your hands or face.
The fire department is far better equipped and skilled at handling car fires. So the common sense answer is don't try to put out a car fire yourself. Don't take any unnecessary risks. Call 911 and let the fire department deal with the situation.
A fire under the hood will destroy wiring and hoses, melt or burn anything plastic, damage control modules and blister or burn the paint off the hood and fenders. Getting the fire out may save the rest of the vehicle from total destruction, but the damage will usually be so extensive and expensive to fix that your insurance company will usually total your car. Even so, if your vehicle is new enough or valuable enough, it may be worthwhile to repair the damage.
A fire inside the passenger compartment whether from an electrical short, a smoldering cigarette or an exploding cell phone or charger can also cause extensive damage. Burning plastic produces highly toxic smoke so it is important to get out of the vehicle as quickly as possible. Air bag canisters or modules may also explode if the fire reaches these devices. As with an underhood fire, the damage is often so extensive that the vehicle will be considered a total loss.
A car fire left to burn will totally gut and destroy a vehicle. Rubber tires can burn and explode. Anything plastic such as upholstery, dash materials, carpeting will burn or melt. Glass will crack and break, and if the fire gets hot enough it may even melt aluminum body panels, hoods or deck lids. Steel body components will not get hot enough to melt, but high temperatures can soften and weaken High Strength Steel (HSS) components such as door side beams, door and roof pillars, and structural sections in rocker panels and subframes. HSS steel starts to weaken at temperatures above 800 degrees F, and loses half its strength if it reaches 1200 degrees F. Weakened HSS body sections may appear to be undamaged, but they won't provide the same degree of crash protection if the vehicle is involved in another accident.
Fire damage to a stationary vehicle that was not involved in an accident and was not set on fire intentionally or under suspicious circumstances will usually be covered by the comprehensive coverage on your auto insurance policy (assuming you have auto insurance with comprehensive coverage). You will have to pay any deductible on the policy (typically $100 to $500) and the insurance company will pay for the rest. If you do not have comprehensive coverage, so sad too bad. You pay the repair bill. Also, if your insurance company totals your vehicle, they may not reimburse you enough to replace your fire damaged car or truck with another vehicle of similar value. You should review your insurance coverage to make sure you have adequate protection.
If your vehicle is involved in an accident or a collision, the circumstances of the accident or collision will determine who is responsible for the damage and who pays. If an accident was not your fault, the other driver's insurance pays. If it was not your fault and the other driver has no insurance (which is illegal in most states), your "uninsured motorist" coverage should pay for the damage to your vehicle. If a fire was your fault, your comprehensive coverage should pays for the damage.
If you are buying a used vehicle that has had fire damage and repairs in its history, you might want to think twice about making such a purchase. If done correctly, a vehicle that has suffered minor fire damage can usually be repaired and restored to like-new condition assuming the repairs are done correctly. However, some backyard auto rebuilders and body shops may not do the repairs correctly. Fire damage to painted surfaces is fairly easy to fix, and burned upholstery and carpeting can be replaced. But rewiring a fire damaged car is not an easy process, especially on late model vehicles with complex electronics and numerous accessories. If a rewiring job is not done correctly, the vehicle may have hidden electrical issues (some things don't work correctly) or it may develop new electrical problems later on.