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Why Cars Catch Fire, How To Prevent Such


By Igono Joseph Okeme


It is almost common to see vehicles going up in flames in Nigeria. It is really a helpless sight to behold. The occupants, if lucky, escape the raging infernos and some, who are not too really lucky, get killed as a result of various degrees of burns sustained in such incidents.

On one instance, when I was returning from one of the holy ghost services at the Redemption Camp early in the morning some months ago (I’m not by all means trying to be a religious PR here), I suddenly saw a Corolla ’08 in flames on the road. The owner of the car was nowhere to be found. Maybe he had gone to look for ‘water’ to fight the fire. Note of caution please; don’t use ordinary water to fight an inferno. That accelerates the fire because fuel is denser than water.

That day, before 8:00am, the car was totally burnt to ashes.

You could imagine environmental, economic, and psychological impacts that incident must have caused the owner, and the environment.

What would have happened, if other adjacent cars caught fire? Imagine the ripple effect of that for a minute.

Incidences like these occur in Lagos, especially areas where vehicles are at close proximity with each other.


For a fire to start, there must be the presence of AIR, FUEL, and a HEAT SOURCE.

There are lots of causes of car fire incidents.

The most common ones are:

  1. Fuel (petrol). Leaks along fuel lines pose a dangerous threat to safety here.

Cars with a leaky injector nozzle system seals can allow tiny droplets of fuel drop on hot spots on an engine, or exhaust system, thereby leading to a fire. These seals are usually weak, when they are exposed to tremendous heat from the engine, and the atmospheric temperature of the environment. Normally at 60,000miles, such seals lose their sealing properties, and create fire risks.

  1. Electrical issues. When you open up the hood of your car, you see bunch of wire harnesses, connectors, etc, acting as a conduit for the flow of current to various components of the car.

If any of these wiring harnesses has a SHORT CIRCUITS problem, the flow of current would be limited, at the load, leading to the current traveling to an undesignated route. This route could be the body of the car, which acts as a ground. This undesired current flow that has found a new path, could trigger a fire. If for instance there’s already a source of fuel provided it by a leaky fuel system component. Bu!!! you hear. Suddenly there’s a fire raging.

  1. Exhaust system. All internal combustion engine applications work through lots of friction and stress in order to produce the motion for the movement you and I enjoy when we drive our SUVs, or in a “danfo bus”. But have you ever thought that those applications could go through temperatures of up to 2000C? With this kind of extreme temperature, coupled with outside temperature, that might be in the range of 30-40C, what do you expect your engine to do? A clogged catalytic converter would generate even more extreme temperatures that could instantly lead to a fire. Even car owners look for an escape route when faced with the heat from traffic logjam on the road and work stress. You escape that by putting on your car’s AC system to take away that heat in exchange for a clean cool air. Isn’t it? OK. Same thing happens to your engine. This extreme temperature is exited through the exhaust system of the car, and straight to the environment.

Now, how does that exhaust system looks like?

Fuel system routed close to exhaust systems are at risks of causing car fires.

Manufacturers, over the years, have routed fuel lines away from exhaust systems, and even shielded the exhaust systems with shield materials to protect excess heat from setting off fires. Some fuel system lines also use heat shields, to help reduce the risks of fires.

  1. Oil spills. Engine oils and automatic transmission fluids spill on engine components like the transmission system, cylinder heads, exhaust system manifold, rotating driven solid shafts, and on engine chassis, etc can cause car fires.

The reason being as these spills gradually builds up into a sludge on those components, they trap dirt made of combustibles, making them susceptible to generating heat and smoke, and then results into a fire while driving.


The most effective way to prevent car fires are:

  1. Carry out preventive maintenance checks on all fuel, exhaust, and electrical systems at every oil change. These checks would help you determine their integrity, and eventually point out potential problem areas before they occur.
  2. Ensure all maintenance/repairs carried out on the car’s fire prone systems, such as the fuel, exhaust, and electrical systems are properly done.

Proper laid down procedures regarding repairs and safety must be strictly adhered to. Do not allow your mechanics to tell you, “Oga. It doesn’t matter to put on an exhaust heat shield, or let’s manage the fuel line clips. It won’t do anything”. If you currently have a mechanic like that as your mechanic, you have to run brother!

  1. Carry out steam washing of the engine bay monthly, or so. That would reduce the accumulation of oil spill build up on the engine area.

If you’re scared of allowing your engine to be steam washed, you could hand wash it.

***use solvents such as petrol, or diesel fuel, to help remove oil spills, and apply a soapy  solution to wash the affected parts mildly.

NB: Ensure the cars ECU (commonly called brainbox), and ignition control modules are protected from water sprays because they could foul the system and cause you tremendous money fixing them.


Well, I know some of us are so religious when it comes to predictive maintenance and stuffs like that. But I think it is cool for you to have some tips on your hand just in case, perhaps, your neighbour’s car catches fire, this is what you should do.

  1. If you notice smoke billowing out of the car while driving, pull over off the road to a safe place and park.

Don’t open the hood because there’s the risk the fire could spread further because opening up the hood creates more oxygen intake for the car and that accelerates the fire.

  1. Get out of the car as soon as possible If you can.

Do not attempt to return back to the car to rescue your laptop, galaxy note 7, and even your jewellery. I think it is better you’re alive than die in that fire; doesn’t make sense to me though. But maybe that’s not my business.

  1. Disconnect the power source if you can. Some cars like Benz, BMW, Renaults don’t have their batteries located at the front. They’re at the rear or at the front passenger seat. Be bold enough to disconnect the positive terminal in order to cut the current supply to the electrical systems.
  2. If you’re courageous enough, fight the fight with a recommended fire extinguisher class type recommended by your safety agency (FRSC); it could be a class B, or C, depending on the specifications recommended.
  3. Call the fire service immediately if you’ve got no guts to stand against a fire.


Car inferno don’t just start like that.

And even if they do, take preventive maintenance checks very seriously. Try monitoring the kinds of jobs and the safety/repair procedures your car mechanic employ fixing your precious car. If you don’t, someday, you might just laugh-cry.

Hope this piece has enlightened someone on this platform.

Dipo Olowookere is a journalist based in Nigeria that has passion for reporting business news stories. At his leisure time, he watches football and supports 3SC of Ibadan.

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