Vehicle fire

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A car engine fire on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
An SUV on fire in Pasadena, California

A vehicle fire is an undesired conflagration (uncontrolled burning) involving a motor vehicle. Also termed car fire or auto fire, it is one of the most common causes of fire-related property damage.


Aftermath of a car fire in Silver Spring, Maryland.

A motor vehicle contains many types of flammable materials, including flammable liquids like gasoline and oil as well as solid combustibles such as hose. Fuel leaks from ruptured fuel lines also can rapidly ignite, especially in petrol fuelled cars where sparks are possible in the engine compartment. Fires with casualties have been caused by ozone cracking of nitrile rubber fuel lines for example.

Vehicles house multiple potential sources of ignition including electrical devices that may short circuit, hot exhaust systems, and modern car devices such as air bag detonators.

In the UK, accidental car fires are declining[1] but deliberate car fires (arson) are increasing. Most car fires in the UK are arson[citation needed]. It is common for joyriders to set fire to stolen cars: abandoned cars are commonly set on fire by vandals. Around two cars out every thousand registered in the UK catch fire each year.[2][3]

It is often the case in accidental auto fires that the bulk of the fire is (at least initially) contained in the engine compartment of the vehicle. In most vehicles, the passenger compartment is protected from engine compartment fire by a firewall. However, in case of arson, the fire does not always start in the interior or spread there.

There are about 280,000 car fires per year in the USA, causing 480 deaths.[4]


While some cases of deliberate car fires are isolated incidents, committed clandestinely, the practice is publicly performed by either rioters and revelers, with little to no retribution. Some tragic vehicle fires have received wide publicity, some evidently due to accident or mechanical or electrical problems, and other due to crimes.


  • 2005 civil unrest in France, 8,973 cars set ablaze.
  • Wilmer Texas bus disaster September 23 in Wilmer Texas a bus evacuating elderly burned after tire caught fire due to lack of lubrication. Twenty-three passengers died, 2 were seriously injured and 19 and the driver received minor injuries [5]


  • New Year's Eve in France, 1,147 cars set ablaze
  • June 5 Chengdu bus fire was a mass murder–suicide in Sichuan, China. killing 27 and injuring 76. There were similar fires in Shenzhen on June 13, in Wuhai on June 15 and in Zhoushan, Zhejiang on June 16. There was no evidence initially of any terrorist connection, and no passengers were killed in the three other bus fires.
  • October 22 Christopher Monfort is suspected of firebombing police cars in Seattle as part of a campaign of terrorism against the police that included murdering a police officer.[6]


  • New Year's Eve in France, 1,137 cars set ablaze, 17 set ablaze in The Hague.



  • New Year's Eve in France, 1,193 cars set ablaze


  • May 4, 2013 5 women are killed in a limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over the San Francisco Bay. Driver believes the fire was caused by an electrical problem.[7] It is later linked to a failure air springs which caused scraping against the road and fire.
  • May 13, 2013 In Summercourt England a fire destroys 35 buses, one third of Western Greyhound’s fleet at a bus depot. Investigators determined the fire was probably deliberate arson [8][9]
  • May 25, 2013 A school bus in Pakistan bursts into flame, killing 16 children and a teacher. It is believed to be an accident caused by a short-circuit next to a leaking gas tank about 120 miles from Islamabad[10]
  • June 7, 2013 In Xiamen China, an unemployed and impoverished Chen Shuizong left a suicide note explaining why he set off an explosion that engulfed a bus in flames and killed 47 people.[11]

Listed by number of casualties[edit]

  • June 7, 2013 Xiamen China killed 47 people.
  • June 5 Chengdu bus fire killed 27 and injured 76.
  • September 23, 2005 Wilmer Texas bus disaster 23 passengers died, 2 were seriously injured and 19 and the driver received minor injuries [12]
  • May 25, 2013 A school bus in Pakistan bursts into flame, killing 16 children and a teacher.
  • May 4, 2013 5 women are killed in a limousine fire on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over the San Francisco Bay.

Recommended action[edit]

A firefighter extinguishing a vehicle fire with a fire hose in Newfoundland.

The recommended action in case of car fire is:[13][14]

  • If the vehicle is moving, politely signal and move to the side of the road.
  • Shut off the engine.
  • Get yourself and all other occupants out of the vehicle immediately.
  • Get far away from the vehicle and stay away from it. Keep onlookers and others away.
  • Do not stand in front of the car as the bumper shock mechanism may eject the bumper.
  • Warn oncoming traffic.
  • Notify emergency services.
  • Do not attempt to put out the fire yourself.

The last is important due to the risk of explosion and the toxic fumes emanating from vehicles fires. Inhalation of toxic fumes is the most common form of fire-related death.

Opening the hood (bonnet) of a car which may be on fire is especially dangerous, as it allows a rapid and significant surge of air into the engine compartment, which may cause a rapid increase in fire intensity. Some countries require the carrying of a fire extinguisher. This should not be seen as overriding the advice above. It has been suggested that, when using a fire extinguisher on an engine fire, the extinguisher should be fully discharged through the gap created by simply releasing (but not lifting) the hood, and then the car should be left until the fire crew have pronounced it safe. As with all fires, residual hot spots may cause the fire to flare up again when fresh oxygen is supplied.

See also[edit]