COLUMBIA, Tenn. (WKRN) — Vehicle fires are commonplace and can happen any place at any time. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about one in every eight fires in the USA is a vehicle fire.
In Columbia, fire crews routinely fight car fires, battling two in the same day a couple of days ago. Not only is the burning car a danger to firefighters and civilians, but what’s stored in the car can also be a concern.
On Wednesday, August 11, around 11 a.m., Maury County 911 began receiving calls about a dark colored BMW driving with flames shooting from under the chassis.
Caller: Yeah, I seen him getting out of it, but when he came around that corner there was fire coming out from under it.
911: Ok. So, they were still driving it and there was fire coming out from underneath it?
Within minutes of the 911 call, Columbia Fire and Rescue is on scene.
Helmet cam shows fire crews arriving at the scene on the corner of James Campbell Blvd. and Carmack Blvd. By this time, the driver is safely out of the BMW, but the car is full of gasoline and it’s burning out of control.
Veteran firefighter Chad Bailey responds to the call that day and tells News 2, car fires can be extremely dangerous and there is a lot to consider when approaching the scene.
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“There’s a lot of things going through our minds at that time. Number one, our safety. Number two, the driver, the occupant, are they safe? Are they out of the vehicle? Number three, putting the fire out. And four, property conservation, what needs to be done to protect the environment?”
According to Bailey, automobile gas tanks can explode, but firefighters face more of a threat from what might be stored in the vehicle.
“You have lithium batteries. You have firearms. You have the possibility of ammo going off. There are fuel cans. There can be aerosol cans. There might be propane cylinders. And it’s not only what’s in the vehicle, but what’s around the vehicle. Where did they pull off at?”
Bailey says even the bumpers and shock absorbers can become lethal projectiles which is why firefighters come at burning vehicles from a 45-degree angle.
“Gas struts that lift the backend and your hood up, those will explode and become projectiles.”
Bailey says some bumpers have been known to blow 40 feet at great force.
Bailey encourages motorists to pull over safely if they see or smell anything burning. He recommends stopping away from buildings and vegetation if possible. And when exiting, make sure you get children and pets out safely and quickly.
In the BMW fire, firefighters have the added problem of a full gas tank that has melted and the fuel, some of it on fire, pouring out of the car and pooling in the parking lot.
Bailey says not only is this operation a firefighting effort, but it soon becomes a hazmat situation where foam is utilized and the gas mixing with water must be blocked from going into nearby storm drains.
“We had already done some initial damming and diking of the product and isolated it and kept it from getting into the storm system and the local water streams.”
According to Columbia Fire and Rescue, nobody was hurt and the threat to the environment was contained. Investigators tell News 2 that the car caught fire because of a transmission leak that ignited on a hot exhaust system.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there was an estimated 212,500 vehicle fires in 2018 resulting in 560 civilian deaths, 1,500 civilian injuries, and $1.9 billion in direct property damage.