How Do Cars Catch On Fire: 14 Reasons Why

logo by Editorial Staff | Updated on August 3rd, 2022

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), vehicle fires account for around 20% of all reported fires. Therefore, it’s worth learning how to lessen part of the danger in your car or truck as well) has recalled a vehicle due to a fire hazard.

Even if an investigator can track the origin of a car fire back to the incident that began the blaze, there is rarely a single reason. It’s more likely that there were several reasons: human causes, mechanical causes, and chemical causes, all of which combined to produce an extremely deadly condition.

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In other words, once a vehicle has caught fire, various circumstances may (and will) aggravate matters. Knowing what those elements are can help a car owner avoid a potentially deadly scenario, but there are no guarantees.

The essential thing to remember is that once a vehicle catches fire, it doesn’t matter what triggered it; your automobile is on fire.

Don’t be concerned about if the engine overheated or what fluid you may have spilled (although that information might be useful later, for insurance purposes or to help an auto manufacturer fix a potential flaw).

Right now, it’s critical that you get out quickly and as far away from the automobile as possible. A tiny automobile fire won’t remain small for long, and any combination of the primary causes (or consequences) discussed in this article can swiftly exacerbate the issue.

Is it usual for an automobile to catch fire?

Every hour, more than 19 automobile fires occur in the United States. They account for one out of every eight calls to which fire crews respond. Every week, roughly seven individuals are killed in vehicle fires. They injure another 1,300 people yearly and wreak $1.1 billion in property damage.

1: Leaks in the fuel system

The most common cause of a fire in your automobile is a leak in the fuel system; after all, petrol can ignite from a spark at just 7.2 degrees Celsius, but it will ignite on its own at 257 degrees.

This combustion process occurs continuously inside your automobile’s cylinders, but when it occurs outside, you have a problem. Thus a leak anywhere in the fuel system (which effectively runs the length of the car) might be disastrous.

Regular maintenance should detect deteriorated fuel lines and damaged parts, and if you smell gasoline in or around your vehicle, have it examined promptly.

But it’s not just gasoline lines that are flammable; engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and power steering fluid are all flammable to some extent. Therefore anything that contains fluid should be examined regularly.

2. mistakes in design

Cars are very complicated devices. Thus unanticipated design defects are unavoidable, despite the billions of dollars automakers invest in designing them.

A design issue may be corrected by a simple software update (either at a dealership or over the air through wi-fi), or it may necessitate a recall to install upgraded parts.

A design defect rarely causes a fire on its own; instead, it just increases the likelihood of a fire if a failure occurs.

If you receive a recall notice for your vehicle, your best defense is to act quickly. Of course, this won’t help if you’re the first to have it happen, but that’s extremely unlikely given the massive number of automobiles on the road, and the great majority of design problems are picked up on before anything bad happens in the first place.

3. Keeping flammable materials in the automobile

One of the leading causes of automobile fires is the storing of flammable materials in the vehicle. It is generally best to avoid storing flammable materials in your car.

When parked in the sun, a pressurized can, such as a deodorant bottle or an air-freshener can, can become extremely hot and burst inside your car, resulting in a fire.

It is also recommended not to smoke or use the cigarette lighter immediately after spraying aerosol-based deodorant inside the automobile. Aerosol-based sprays pose a significant fire risk to your car.

In Baltimore County, Maryland, the United States, a man suffered significant injuries after spraying an aerosol can with deodorant and lighting a cigarette inside a car.

According to Baltimore County Police, the man was sitting inside his vehicle. Despite the windows opening, the air blowing in the car pushed the aerosol fumes further into the vehicle.

When the man lit the cigarette, a “sudden, violent expansion of air” occurred, damaging the car and shaking a nearby building.

4: Engine Overheating

In general, an overheated engine necessitates mechanical intervention.

An engine that overheats and causes a car to catch fire is a prime illustration of how one issue may exacerbate another. A car’s engine is unlikely to overheat sufficiently to burst into flames on its own.

However, an engine can overheat, causing internal fluids such as oil and coolant to reach unsafe temperatures and begin to flow outside of their allotted zones of circulation. When this happens, they drop, drizzle, and squirt throughout the engine compartment and onto the exhaust system, where they can readily ignite and spread.

In some cases, such as the late-2012 recall of approximately 90,000 Ford vehicles equipped with a specific EcoBoost powertrain, an overheating engine is a design flaw that can be corrected with a software update – modifying the car’s computer to help keep engine temperatures at a safer (lower temperature) threshold.

An overheated engine, on the other hand, necessitates mechanical intervention. There is frequently a leaking seal or gasket, the radiator isn’t operating correctly, or any other issues. If your car’s engine is frequently overheating, that’s not a good sign.

5. Failures in the Electrical System

The second most prevalent cause of automobile fires is an electrical system failure.

Electrical system failures are ranked second on the list because they are the second leading cause of automobile fires [source: Walters Forensic Engineering]. Car batteries are a concern, not only the hybrid and all-electric car battery packs we’ve already covered.

The ordinary battery in a common automobile can cause a lot of problems. The battery’s charging cycles can cause explosive hydrogen gas to accumulate in the engine compartment, and the electrical current provided by the battery (combined with defective or loose wiring) can create sparks that can quickly ignite a fluid trickle or leaking vapors.

The dangers of the electrical system aren’t limited to the region beneath the hood. Electrical wiring goes throughout the vehicle, through channels, doors, beneath the carpet, and power. Heated seats, a few areas where a stray, undiscovered frayed wire might create disaster.

6. Accessories for the Aftermarket

Amateur accessory installations may mistakenly generate an electrical fault, resulting in a fire later on. A single mounting screw improperly drilled through a high-output stereo cable can short circuit the system and cause a fire.

Sound system and off-road lighting installations may be disastrous, especially now that the amperage necessary to power these aftermarket components is significantly greater. Many trucks and custom automobiles have two batteries to power the entertainment equipment, making things even more confusing.

According to Wood, you should always have your aftermarket items fitted by an authorized technician rather than your unemployed nephew. Similarly, careless backyard mechanics who insist on repairing your automobile with only a wrench and a screwdriver frequently overlook complicated faults involving the vehicle’s computers and wiring looms.

Amateur fixes and shortcuts can add unanticipated risks into the engine compartment, which has already been shown to be a hazardous environment. As wise advertising once suggested, don’t open your door to strangers.

7: Automobile Mishaps

In the event of an accident, most contemporary automobiles are well-designed with crumple zones that safeguard a car’s interior hazardous locations, such as its engine, battery, and gas tank.

However, these metal sheets can only withstand a limited amount of strain. When this quantity is exceeded, such as when a tractor-trailer collides with a small car, the impact will most likely destroy the barrier and cause fluids to seep and spill.

Fuel leakage or spark generation in certain areas, along with heat, will immediately start a fire.

8. Driving and Smoking

There are still enough to make driving while smoking a regular danger. Drivers have flung their cigarette out the window on a hot day, only to have the burning butt re-enter through the open back window and drop on the upholstery or carpeting, igniting the synthetic materials.

The uninformed driver becomes aware of the emergency when they feel an unpleasant heat directly behind them.

Some cargo does not even require an igniting source. “On a hot day, someone was transporting old manure in their pickup truck, and the substance created enough heat on its own to spontaneously explode!

9: Batteries for Hybrid and Electric Vehicles

People have long been concerned about hybrid and electric car battery packs, and with each new design, there are new potential problems.

In the autumn of 2013, not long after the Tesla Model S was given the unofficial moniker of “the safest automobile ever” by the media (and by Tesla Motors), a Tesla Model S caught fire. That’s never good, of course, but it was extremely disastrous for Tesla. The business had previously claimed that the fully electric Model S was almost immune to the battery-related issues that have afflicted hybrids and EVs.

Unfortunately, a Model S driving at high speeds collided with a piece of debris, puncturing the battery, and the battery acted like any other battery: it ignited.

The Chevy Volt made news in 2011 and 2012 after several test vehicles caught fire during impact testing. Federal authorities discovered that in most of these incidents, leaked coolant combined with defective batteries caused the fire, and General Motors was able to devise a solution that satisfied government safety experts.

On the other hand, concerns concerning hybrid and electric batteries date back a long time, and there are new potential concerns with each new design. It may be some time before the public’s attention is drawn away from the safety concerns raised by these high-profile accidents.

10: Catalytic Converter Overheating

A blocked (or overworked) catalytic converter may readily ignite the cabin insulation and carpeting straight through the heat shields and metal floor pan.

Overheating catalytic converters are a common fire hazard, but consider this: The exhaust system is one of the hottest elements of your car, and it spans the whole length of the vehicle. Catalytic converters typically overheat because they work too hard to remove more pollutants from the exhaust than they are intended to handle.

In other words, if the car’s engine isn’t running effectively (due to old spark plugs or a variety of other factors), it doesn’t burn the gasoline correctly, and a lot of other stuff gets up in the exhaust system. Therefore, the cat is forced to work harder to complete its task, making it even more heated than usual.

An overworked (or blocked) catalytic converter may rapidly rise beyond 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit from its usual working temperature range of roughly 1,200 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (648.9 to 871.1 degrees Celsius) (1,093.3 degrees Celsius). This causes long-term harm not only to the cat but also to the car’s surrounding components.

The automobile is built to endure the cat’s usual temperatures, but it cannot reliably survive temperatures hundreds of degrees higher. If the catalytic converter heats up sufficiently, it might ignite the cabin insulation and carpets, burning through the heat shields and metal floor pan.

11. Animals

Be wary of mice who bring goodies. Nests and stashes of nuts that rats prefer to keep within the warm confines of an engine are frequently discovered by automotive mechanics. One technician discovered a bird nest in the air cleaner, which was a fire threat based on the burned twigs that were there.

Another vehicle was the unlucky victim of a squirrel who had pushed nuts into the air inlet. Dried leaves, twigs, and other nesting materials introduced into the engine compartment by rats serve as kindling for a possible fire beneath the hood.

The automotive industry’s passion for recyclable, organic materials has created a new issue: soy-based electrical wire insulation, which has become a favorite delicacy of mice under the hood. According to CTV, the problem is growing more widespread as automakers such as Honda, Toyota, and Subaru switch to soy-based insulation.

In one case, rats damaged the wiring in a Honda CR-V, prompting the owner to spend hundreds of dollars on the damage. Toothy rodents can create fire by exposing hot wires. To remedy the issue, wire wrap impregnated with rat repellent (chili pepper) is available.

12. Spilled Fluids

Spilled or leaking fluids beneath your automobile or truck’s hood might start a fire.

Under the hood of the common automobile or truck are several flammable and very hazardous fluids: gasoline or diesel fuel, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and even engine coolant. When the automobile is turned on, all those fluids are moving, and any of them can easily catch fire if their lines, hoses, or reservoirs are damaged.

So, while one of the car’s essential fluids is unlikely to start spouting or leaking out of nowhere – something else needs to go wrong first – the fact that all of these fluids are combustible in the first place is a hazard in and of itself. The consequence might be a fire when combined with another aggravating cause, such as a vehicle accident or faulty part.

Though such a fire is most likely to start in the engine compartment, where all of these harmful substances are concentrated, keep in mind that some of them, such as fuel and brake fluid, are transported down the whole length of the vehicle.

13: Inadequate Maintenance

Forgetting or omitting to maintain your automobile properly might result in a deadly car fire.

Human mistake is unlikely to be the direct cause of a fire in your car; after all, being lethargic isn’t the same as striking a match and lighting a wick in the gas tank.

However, if you neglect maintenance, your automobile will be much riskier in general, and the higher possibility of a car fire is only one of the larger hazards you’re incurring. Ignoring or omitting to care for your automobile properly might lead to a deadly fire.

That’s because ignoring defective components, leaking seals, or bad wiring will make your automobile far more favorable to the conditions that cause a fire. A leaking gasket increases the likelihood of dangerous (and flammable) fluids leaking from the engine.

The frayed wire is more prone to spark and ignite when it comes into touch with combustible materials. Isn’t it preferable to know whether your vehicle is a possible deathtrap? Just lift the hood occasionally and take a glance around.

14. Arson

Setting a car on fire is very straightforward for an arsonist; however, doing it without being noticed is the true problem.

Arson is defined as the unlawful act of starting a fire. Why, after all, would somebody intentionally set fire to a car? It might be to conceal theft or evidence of another crime. It might also be old-fashioned vandalism, destroying something solely for the pleasure of destroying it. It might also be insurance fraud. There are certainly a few more reasons, but they should be left to the criminal masterminds.

It’s worth emphasizing that it’s rather simple to set a car on fire; possibly doing so without being noticed is difficult, but starting a car fire is straightforward.

An arsonist may use any combination of the catalysts and causes listed above (and more) to start a fire – and a good auto arsonist can occasionally get away with it as well. After all, the physical proof is a burning conflagration. We’re not endorsing this in any way, but an arsonist is another possibility for why your automobile is on fire.

What Can I Do to Keep My Car From Catching Fire?

Because traffic crashes or manufacturing flaws usually cause car fires, preventing them is difficult. On the other hand, specific precautions can lessen the chances of being wounded in such a situation. Follow the NFPA’s (National Fire Protection Association) automobile fire prevention tips:

  • Make sure your car is maintained regularly by a qualified mechanic.
  • If you see any leaks or if your vehicle is not functioning correctly, inspect it.
  • If you must carry gasoline, keep a window open for air and transport just a limited quantity in a certified gas can that is sealed.
  • Never transport gas cans or propane cylinders in the passenger compartment.
  • Never park a car in an area where flammables might come into contact with the catalytic converter.
  • To avoid an accident, drive cautiously.

Take urgent action if you observe any of the following risk signs:

  • Wiring that is cracked or loose, as well as electrical issues (a fuse that blows more than once)
  • The oil cap is not properly fastened.
  • Leaks of oil or fluid
  • Changes in engine temperature, fuel, or fluid level that occur quickly

A well-maintained car is less likely to catch fire. Also, avoid smoking in your automobile to significantly lower your chances of getting involved in an auto fire.

What Should You Do If Your Car Is On Fire?

If you notice smoke, flames, or the odor of burning rubber or plastic, you must act quickly. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that you follow the measures outlined below to lessen your risks of getting badly wounded or burnt.

  • Pull your off the road. When you suspect your automobile is on fire, you must signal your intention to pull over to a safe spot where you are not impeding traffic and put your vehicle in park. If you’re trapped in traffic and can’t get off the road, switch on your hazard lights and put your car in park.
  • Turn the engine off. Turn off the engine once the car has come to a complete stop. If there is merely smoke, this reduces the chances of flames starting.
  • Get everyone out of here. While you should never return to a burning automobile to retrieve personal goods, it is critical to assist all passengers in exiting the vehicle as soon as possible.
  • Retract your steps. Get as far away from the car as you can, at least 100 feet. Being far away from an explosion reduces the possibility of more injuries.
  • Dial 911. After you’ve performed the above procedures, dial 911, emergency personnel should get on the site as soon as possible and do everything necessary to extinguish the fire.


What causes vehicle fires?

A car may catch fire due to a collision. However, automobile fires are more commonly caused by a faulty fuel system or electrical wiring or by a burning cigarette left in the car, which causes the seats or carpets to catch fire. In other circumstances, a defect in the design may also be to blame.

Where do the majority of automobile fires begin?

More than half of all highway car fires start in the engine compartment or near the wheels. Less than 20% of vehicle fires start in the passenger compartment, while less than 5% of vehicle fires start in the cargo area or trunk. In some cases, the gasoline tank or fuel line might cause ignite.

What causes an automobile to catch fire in the event of an accident?

A gasoline tank leak is one of the most prevalent causes of automobiles catching fire following an accident. Fuel lines that have been improperly placed, routed, or faulty, and those that have just been significantly damaged in the collision, are prone to rupture during an accident, causing the automobile to ignite.

How do you extinguish a vehicle fire?

On a burning automobile, use a dry powder or foam fire extinguisher. The safest thing to do, though, is to step away from the automobile and call the fire department.

Where do the majority of automobile fires begin?

In most cases, the fire is initially restricted to the vehicle’s engine compartment.

Is it possible for an automobile to suddenly combust?

Yes, although it’s not very frequent these days. Cars catch fire for a variety of causes, most of which are electrical or mechanical. Fluid or oil leaks, poor wiring, or fluctuations in gasoline levels or engine temperature are all signs that a car might catch fire.

When an automobile catches fire, does it explode?

When an automobile catches fire, it is extremely unusual to explode. The correct proportion of oxygen, gas, and fire must be present to blow up an automobile. When set on fire, cars operate on liquid gas, which does not usually explode.


Editorial Staff

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