Car fires: What to do if your car catches fire and how to stop it

Car fires

Around a third of the 300 car fires a day are caused by poor maintenance or design flaws

Car fires are not as rare as you might think. The Fire Service says that around 300 cars a day go up in flames. Recently there have been high-profile blazes involving the Vauxhall Zafira MPV because of a design flaw. And figures from the Driver Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), which oversees manufacturer recalls of faulty vehicles, reveal that the number of cars recalled for risk of fire increased dramatically in 2015-16.

Big-name manufacturers Honda, Chrysler, Bentley, Volkswagen, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Ferrari, and Porsche all joined Vauxhall in issuing recalls for vehicles that are at risk of catching fire because of design or build flaws.

Although the chance of a car catching fire is tiny, what do you do if it does? We asked the Fire Service for its advice.

What causes car fires?

The Fire Service claims around 65 per cent of car fires are started deliberately. The majority are the result of vandalism with one in 12 stolen vehicles burnt out. Other causes include criminals trying to cover their tracks and insurance fraud. Of the remaining 35 per cent, some are the result of manufacturing problems when cars are built. The rest may well be accidentally inflicted by owners. The Fire Service suggested: “Many vehicle fires break out simply due to a lack of basic maintenance and can be prevented.”

How simple maintenance can help

If your car’s manufacturer has used a faulty part or designed something poorly under the bonnet, there isn’t much you can do to prevent a fire. That’s why if your car is subject to a manufacturer recall, it’s vital to get the work done. Find out about recalls from the DVSA here.

Car fires

Drivers of the second-generation Vauxhall Zafira should check that work has been done to stop their car bursting into flames (Picture © Vauxhall)

However, a bit of vigilance and common sense can prevent a fire. The majority of those fires that are a result of a ‘lack of basic maintenance’ will be electrical. When you lift the bonnet to check your oil or top up the screen wash, take a look for any exposed cables and check they haven’t been chafed or worn in any way. And the Fire Service warns that alterations or additions to the electrical system should be carried out in a competent manner – preferably by qualified mechanics. Other things to watch out for when you’re looking under the bonnet are fluid leaks so keep your nose primed for the smell of petrol.

No smoking without fire?

Although it’s illegal to smoke in a car carrying children under 18, and in company vehicles, you can otherwise still smoke in cars. The Fire Service advises not to. A spokesperson said: “Modern car interiors are largely composed of plastics and other synthetic materials, all of which are particularly flammable. The smoke and fumes from a fire inside a car are highly toxic and can be deadly if inhaled. Simple common sense and the proper use and disposal of matches and cigarettes will minimise the risk.”

Why it’s important to stop quickly

As soon as you smell smoke or see it coming through the vents or from under the bonnet it’s vital to stop your car. The reason is those toxic fumes: if you keep going you could be overcome by them.

Where to stop

You need to be able to stop safely without endangering other road users. But it’s also important that you don’t stop near to other vehicles or property that your fire could spread to.

Car fires: What to do

As soon as you’ve stopped safely, switch off the engine and remove the key. Before you leave the car, release the bonnet but do not open it. Then get everyone out of the car. If you can, ensure all windows are closed and the doors are shut when you leave the car. It’s advisable to leave any luggage behind unless it’s readily accessible. Once you and your passengers are a safe distance away from the car, dial 999.

What will happen next?

If you’re cowering behind a bush, expecting a Hollywood-style explosion, you’ll have a long wait. Car makers have done a lot to ensure that petrol tanks are well protected from impacts and fires. They’re usually located beneath the rear seats, so a fire that starts in the engine bay really has to take hold for the petrol tank to explode. The reason for keeping doors and windows shut is that without a constant supply of oxygen, a fire will struggle to establish itself in a car’s cockpit. It’s for that reason you don’t open the bonnet either. Bearing all this in mind, hopefully the Fire Service, or someone with a fire extinguisher will arrive before your car is a road-side inferno.

Put the fire out if you can

The Fire Service advises having a multi-purpose dry powder or foam spray extinguisher conforming to BS EN3 in your car. These cost from around £10. “If and only if you believe it is safe to do so, attempt to put out the fire. If the fire is in the engine compartment, do not open the bonnet but aim the extinguisher through the radiator grille or under the edge of the bonnet. Use with caution and if in doubt, don’t attempt to tackle the fire.” It also stresses drivers should never use water on an engine fire – it can short out wiring and spread burning petrol with disastrous effect.

3 comments on “Car fires: What to do if your car catches fire and how to stop it

  1. Maria Miles December 3, 2016 8:42 am

    Get out ,and call for emergency

  2. Tony R. January 5, 2017 8:45 pm

    I had that happen to me one time, a long time ago when I was younger. An oil leak sparked a fire in a hot engine of my 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, as I was driving down the highway on a road trip. I saw the check engine light go on (it had before), but I didn’t know it was actually on fire until I saw an orange light glowing brightly from under the hood! I pulled over and got my stuff out expecting an explosion. Fortunately, a trucker pulled over with a fire extinguisher and put it out. Later on, the fire department came and doused the entire car with fire protectant, “as a precaution”. I towed it to the nearest hotel and stayed the night. I wound up selling what was left of it to some local person who noticed it for $250, and had a friend drive me home. Trip cancelled!

  3. Mark April 14, 2017 3:17 pm

    To carry a fire extinguisher in your car is a good idea. I prefer halon type with no residue. Cheaper ones are messy, but still better than nothing.

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