Vehicle fires: Control the burning mass

A burning vehicle set in motion can play havoc on a fireground; here are steps to avoid this potentially deadly scenario


One of the more common calls that firefighters respond to is the vehicle fire. The reasons are fairly straightforward: vehicles are everywhere, they contain a large fuel load and they generate high heat.

The reason why vehicles catch fire is a concern for fire investigators. Our main concerns are firefighter and civilian safety, fire suppression and exposures — that is, what is around the vehicle that may catch fire.

As basic as passenger vehicle fires may be, there are some considerations to be aware off that can negatively impact the fireground.

The first consideration is apparatus placement. Try to avoid parking directly in front of the burning vehicle. This may not always be possible as access to the vehicle may be only from one direction.

Runaway car

In the attached video, you can see the vehicle on fire lose its braking ability and roll down the roadway. Gravity works, and a vehicle with intact tires no obstructions can freely move on a downward slope regardless of how involved it is.

Another concern regarding topography is the flow of the runoff from the vehicle. In the video, liquids from the vehicle flow downhill toward the fire truck. This liquid is ignitable and can present more challenges for the responding crew.

Always try to park the fire truck uphill from the vehicle fire to keep gravity from working against fire suppression efforts.

If a vehicle does start to roll and is heading towards the crew or the fire truck, do not try to stop the vehicle. As you see, a firefighter tries to stop the vehicle and is very close to being caught between the front bumper of the fire truck and the rolling vehicle.

If this happens, warn the crew members, get them out of the way and do not insert yourself between the two objects. We will not be able to stop 2 tons of steel rolling downhill.

Water supply

Another consideration is can a rolling vehicle cut off the hose. This is easy to overlook. We pull a front bumper line or a pre-connected line, flake it out and attack the fire.

We do not expect the vehicle to move and do not pay much attention to where the hose is flaked out. In this case, the rolling vehicle drives over the hose.

This is not a major disaster in terms of losing water supply or water pressure because the vehicle is outside, isolated and not exposing other structures. However, if the vehicle were parked in a garage or rolled toward a house, we would have a different situation.

One way to easily prevent this is to chock the wheels when conditions permit. Otherwise, avoid parking the fire apparatus downhill from the burning vehicle. 

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