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Here’s some essential advice on how to put out a vehicle fire, plus a handy tip on exiting your car if the doors won’t open…
We’ve all seen it: the scary sight of a blackened patch by the side of the road with tar melted from the heat of combustion. Car fires are a reality and, while safety technology is fully integrated into the modern car, there remains the possibility of system failure or accidents that can start a fire. There are various ways a fire can start, with the three most common classes all applicable to motor vehicles. Class A is the burning of material such as fabric and plastics; class B involves flammable liquids such as petrol, diesel and other oils; and class C is an electrical fire.
Petrol’s lower flash point makes petrol class B fires the most risky. Add to this the increasing fuel-injection pressures of today’s vehicles, and a class B incident can happen very quickly. An electrical fire will usually be caused by a short circuit in the vast wiring array found in all feature-rich cars. It could also be caused by faulty or inadequately designed switches that cannot cope with the current passing through, thus heating the switch until something melts and then catches fire. There will often be a warning of a burning smell, followed by some smoke.
Emergency exit tricks
Exiting the car as soon as you have come to a safe stop is not always possible. If the fire affects the wiring system, you may not be able to unlock the doors. You can buy specific auto-glass-breaking hammer devices to stow in your vehicle in case of emergencies, but if you don’t have one, we explain another method to below.
Your vehicle’s headrest can be a lifesaver. Remove one of the rests by pressing the tab on the struts and pulling the unit upwards and out of the seatback. The struts are made of steel and, by holding the cushion and slamming one of the struts into the side window, you should be able to break the glass. You can then crawl out through the window. If there are other passengers, you may have to break other windows if the doors still won’t open.
Pull over immediately
If you suspect there may be a fire somewhere in your vehicle, it’s imperative that you pull over immediately, turn off the ignition and get all the occupants out of the vehicle and a safe distance of at least 20 metres away.
If you feel the fire is small enough to tackle safely yourself, an extinguisher is the best method to limit the damage. Apart from the obvious need for such an item in your home, especially near the kitchen and garage, it is wise to carry one in your car.
Types of extinguishers available from hardware and car spares stores are:
• Water: this should be used only on a class A fire, i.e. fabrics, and is ineffective
• Dry chemical powder: can be used for materials, flammable liquids and electrical.
• Foam: good for liquid fires, but not great on electrical.
• Carbon dioxide: works on liquids and electric, too, but the duration of effectiveness is limited.
The dry powder extinguisher is the best bet for your car or caravan. Don’t go too big, as this may be difficult to store. A 1 kg version should work and preferably use the bracket supplied to screw it down somewhere. If there’s space, place it under the driver’s seat. This will prevent possible injury caused by untethered items being flung around should you be involved in an accident. It’s also a good idea to carry a second one fixed inside the boot. These should be serviced when indicated. The best purchase is a DCP product (dry chemical powder) and is suitable for classes A, B and C. The cost is between R150 and R400 for a one- to two-kilogram canister, so is well worth the expense.
Disconnecting the battery
If cutting the ignition does not stop an electrical fire, you have an even more serious problem. Provided it is safe, try to disconnect the battery. Keep a spanner handy at all times for this – usually a 10 mm or 13 mm open-end spanner will do the trick. Another solution is to stash a small shifting spanner in the glove box.