I Set Two Cars On Fire Last Night, Here's What I Learned

Over the last few months I've been training as member of the volunteer fire company in my hamlet. Last night was my first live car-fire exercise, which was scary, smelly, and a whole lot of fun. I also learned a few things about supercar ownership. I mean car fire safety.

The company regularly sets up controlled burns of buildings, vehicles, trailers, and equipment so we can practice extinguishing them. On this night, a Suzuki sedan and an old Ford Expedition were our sacrificial lambs. The vehicles were donated from a local wrecking yard, who had drained most of the fluids and dragged them to our "burn pad."

Before you late-90's shitbox collectors get too worked up, don't worry; both vehicles had rusty frames, moldy interiors, and were well beyond restoring to roadworthiness.

For our exercise, the two vehicles were parked in parallel about eight feet apart. Some hay was stuffed into the engine bays and interiors to make things happen a little faster, which was ignited with a road flare. The fire would be allowed to burn for awhile to simulate response time. An officer would then "call it in" for the record, something like "car fire at 123 Training Center Drive."

Whichever training group that was up to bat would then come raging around the corner in a pumping apparatus (fire truck), start breaking out the hoses, and do their thing.

We ran the exercise three times, once with an engine fire on the Suzuki, once with the entire Suzuki consumed by conflagration or "fully involved" in fireman speak, and the last time with an engine fire in both vehicles simultaneously.

As a newer member of my fire district, my role is still limited to supporting tasks. But at least it was a better position to observe all the exciting aspects of car fires you might not have thought about, which I'll share with you here.

It All Happens Very, Very Fast

Since sheet metal doesn't readily burn, you might not think a car fire would go from "whoa, there are flames coming out of my carb!" to "OH LORD JESUS THERE'S A FIERE!" But as it most certainly can. Not always, mind you. When we set an engine fire in the Expedition, it was extinguished after about ten minutes and had not spread to the cabin. But with the blaze ignited in the same location on the Suzuki, the sedan turned into a fireball inside four minutes.

Don't Stand Directly In Front Or Behind A Burning Car

Obviously if you're not an on-the-clock firefighter, you should move away from something as dangerous as a burning pile of plastics, metals, polymers, and combustable liquids. But we were specifically briefed to approach burning cars from an angle, because apparently it's fairly common for a bumper to get blasted off as superheated bumper-shock material can explode. I didn't witness this, however I was assured it was reason for concern.

Shit Whips Open For Like, No Reason

Well not no reason, I just love that headline. But doors, hoods, and hatches can blast open on a burning car with a lot of force and no warning. Other than the fact that the car's ablaze. Dampeners that hold hoods and rear tailgates up explode when heated, which is terrifying and actually a significant event in the fire.

The hood supports in the Suzuki went boom just a few minutes after the fire was lit, slamming the hood against the windshield so hard it broke the glass. That allowed flames from the engine bay to grab the headliner; the interior was unsurvivable within seconds.

Inflated Tires Explode

And do they ever. With a flare of white and a sound like a gunshot, our Suzuki's front tires succumbed to heat after the engine had been burning for three minutes at most. Hot, gooey, rubber was launched in all directions and parts that weren't vaporized made it as far as twenty feet from the car.

Cars Don't "Blow Up," Even When They're Leaking Gas

Gasoline may be feeding a fire, but it's more likely to burn steadily than ignite in a Hollywood-style mushroom cloud. So told us our commanding officers. "I'm not saying it will never happen," one of their favorite phrases to add to a briefing, "but it isn't likely."

...Unless They Have Explosive Metal Components

Flammable solids exist, and some such materials are used in certain automobiles. The Porsche Carrera GT comes to mind, which features components made of magnesium. The material is favorable for automotive construction due to its high strength and low weight, but not only is it a flammable solid, it's also water-reactive.

Once ignited, magnesium burns vigorously. When water is applied, it can explode violently. Dry sand or what's called "Class D" extinguishing powder must be used to arrest a magnesium burn, which virtually all fire departments have access to. However, for cost reasons water is still the default and not every firefighter knows a magnesium-heavy car when they see it... this presents a serious danger for rescue teams and bystanders.

You Can't See Shit Once The Fire Department Shows Up

Cars kick out a fairly ominous column of black smoke when burning, but once firemen start spraying water on that slab of steel a steam cloud surrounds the car and obscures local visibility to basically nothing. The cloud also smells the worst and is probably hella carcinogenic.

Using certain foam-type agents like the one in the picture above would mitigate this, but that shit ain't cheap.

Top Image: OfficerGreg/Flickr.

I would have loved to have snapped a photo of our fire in action, but an officer would have thrown my phone in the fire if he'd seen me pull it out during a live fire exercise. Our department has a strict "no texting in life-threatening situations" policy, even if the danger is controlled in a simulation. But here's the aftermath: