Service Station Fires

   By Brian Butler

There are over a thousand fires a year at service stations across the U.S. Most are vehicle fires, but a bulk of the damage and property losses are a result of structure fires on the property. 

Service station fires are unique incidents that come with various additional hazards, requiring a cautious approach. Dangers range from flammable liquids and hazardous material fire loads, to burning vehicles exploding inside of an auto shop.

What's considered a service station? For the purpose of this article and relevance to the fire service, I will define a service station as, "Any station, structure and their attached properties that provide fuel filling service, mechanical, or body repair service to a motor vehicle." 

This includes fueling stations, auto repair/body shops, convenience stores with fuel pumps, and even some junk yards or auto dealerships that offer auto repair services. 

Vehicle Fire or Structure Fire? A vehicle burning on a lift inside of an auto repair shop is considered a structure fire. A vehicle burning at a gas station remote from the structure itself under a canopy attached to a gas pump is a vehicle fire with an exposure problem. But both will still require a full structure response.

Apparatus Placement: Where we place fire apparatus is critical when it comes to fueling station fires. This cannot be stressed enough. For example, when arriving to a vehicle fire at the gas dispensing area, be sure to approach cautiously parking at least 100-150 feet away uphill and upwind. If an exposed propane tank is involved, we obviously need to increase that distance. Consider the possibility of running fuel fires, potential LPG explosion, difficult hose stretches and the direction of other responding emergency vehicles when determining apparatus placement. Do a quick scan on approach for exposure problems, additional storage tanks, or an occupant trapped inside of a burning vehicle that will require immediate action. We must be prepared to make quick tactical decisions for these emergencies.

Vehicle Fire Gas Pumps: Most gas stations have manual or automatic fire suppression systems that will activate in the event of a vehicle fire at the pump. Arriving companies should verify that the emergency pump shutoff is activated. The station attendant may have already done this, but we can't always rely on them, so confirmation is needed. The priority is to rescue any occupants inside of a burning vehicle and evacuate anyone in the danger zone. Bring the proper tools and equipment for the job (Irons, hole punch, seat belt cutter, dry chem extinguisher, foam).

Extinguishing Agents: Do we have a Class A or B fire, or both? A carbon dioxide or ABC dry chem fire extinguisher and AFFF foam are the best methods to extinguish a gasoline fire. Gas stations should have fire extinguishers near the pumps and may have an overhead suppression system. Vehicle fires at the pumps can be extinguished conventionally by using water from a hand line directed inside the vehicle and engine compartment. Whether the fuel nozzle is still connected to the vehicle or on the ground doesn't matter IF THE PUMP SHUTOFF IS ACTIVATED. If the fuel is still flowing out of the nozzle, the shutoff has not been activated. Use a dry chemical fire extinguisher (or foam) for any fuel burning (Class B fire) on the ground near the pumps or under the vehicle. Do not use water on burning gasoline. Water application with a fog pattern can be used for flammable vapor control, protections during rescue, and to protect any nearby combustible exposures. 

Explosions: Thanks to the film industry, many people are under the impression that when a car hits a gas pump, a large explosion follows because that's what they see in the movies. The fact is that there are many safety features built into the gas pumps and underground tanks to prevent such explosions. There are emergency shutoffs, backflow preventers, and shear valves. Properly maintained underground storage tanks will not have the proper vapor/oxygen ratio to support combustion. 

Emergency Shear Valves are installed on fuel-supply lines beneath dispensers at grade level to minimize hazards associated with collision or fire at the dispenser. If the dispenser is pulled over or dislodged by collision, the top of the valve breaks free at the integral shear groove, activating poppets that shut off the flow of fuel- OPW Global link.  

Class A & B Fire

If foam is not available, use a fog pattern for protection when attempting a rescue involving a trapped occupant of the vehicle. Hit the emergency pump shutoff, and use dry chem extinguishers until foam arrives. 

RV Burning At Pump

A large burning RV is a burning structure on wheels. In addition to foam, consider using two engines tank water for quick knockdown. Listen for relief valves from propane tanks, and cool the tanks from a safe distance. Rememeber "RV=propane!"

Occupant Entrapment

Life safety is priority at these fires. Activate the emergency pump shutoff and use the protection of a hoseline to make the rescue. With a class A and B fire, hope you have a savvy nozzleman, foam, and extra manpower.

Residential Exposure

Be cognizant of residental apartments over top of service stations. These must be priority to protect escaping occupants, primary searches, and rescues. Check the sides and rear for fire escapes, and access stairs to doors leading to these apartments.

CNG Service Station

The new service stations are the CNG fill stations for CNG vehicles. These will also have emergency shutoffs. For more on CNG/LPG fires and releases, click here.

Service Station Exposure

This fire was in the rear of the PA Turnpike Sunoco gas station-rest stop. When we pulled up, the bobtail was fully involved and the saddle tanks ruptured causing a running diesel fire that extended to a compactor. Foam was applied to keep it from extending to the building just 30 feet away.

Vehicle Crash Into Pump, Explosion With Rescue.


This video shows a car crashing into a car that had just stopped next to the rear right pump on the southbound side of the highway gas station, and the gas pump itself.

On the other side of that pump is John Vescio, who gets hit by the gas pump as it topples over onto his car from the impact. The gas pump erupts in flames immediately and Vescio gets out of the way and runs back to pull the driver out who was having a diabetic emergency.

Know where the pump shutoffs are. Rescue is our #1 priority.

Automatic Suppression System At Work

Fire pre-plans will determine which stations have suppression systems.

RV Fire At Gas Pump

A burning RV is a structure fire on wheels. Be aware of the propane tanks. Watch this fire progress before arrival of the fire department, who did a good job of quickly applying water to the fire. No fuel was involved here. The canopy was badly damaged. 

Automatic Suppression System

Emergency Shutoff

Gas Station/Convenience Store

Gas Station/Repair Shop

Repair Shop

Tire/Repair Shop

Tire Shops

Tire Shop in Norman Oklahoma.

Hazards & Concerns

Fueling stations, service stations, auto repair and body shops are full of combustible and hazardous materials. They house fuel storage tanks, numerous vehicles, paints, machinery, tires, acetylene, petroleum and auto parts. They will burn much faster and hotter than your average structure fire. 

As you can see in the videos above, they burn extremely hot and produce an incredible amount of thick black toxic smoke.

During interior attacks at service station fires, be aware of mechanic floor pits, elevated hydraulic lifts, increased fire loads, suspended ceilings, storage racks and (bowstring) lightweight truss construction. 

The obvious strategy and tactics for fires in auto repair shops is to go big water right away using 200-250 GPM 2 1/2 lines and master streams. Get the garage doors open early and protect any exposures. If heavily secured, take out a few of the garage door windows and direct the stream in the building until the doors or other access points can be opened. If venting the roof is necessary, try to work from a bucket or aerial ladder, especially when there's heavy fire or lightweight construction present. Most of these structures in urban areas are non-combustible or ordinary construction and roof supports are usually unprotected. Expect any vehicles burning inside the structure to contribute additional hazards like exploding struts, bumpers, compressed gas inflators, burning magnesium, battery acid, running fuel and accelerated weakening of roof supports.

Guard Dogs: Use caution and request animal control if you see aggressive guard dogs. This is often overlooked, but guard dogs are common in these types of occupancies to prevent theft, especially in urban areas. 

Hazardous Materials: Some hazmats found at service stations are sulfuric acid, caustic solution, flammable gas/liquid, solvents, parts cleaners, oil, hydraulic fluids, car batteries, cleaners, propane-kerosene-aerosols.

Static Electricity: Static electricity caused fires at gas pumps are extremely rare but they do happen and many have been caught on video. A study conducted by the 'Petroleum Equipment Institute' discovered that in 150 incidents of static electricity fires while refueling vehicles, most of them involved women. This is interesting because the study suggests that most men never get back in their vehicles until they're completely done refueling and women tend to go back and forth from the nozzle to the interior of the vehicle when refueling which will more likely accumulate a static charge. In most of the cases, rubber-soled shoes were worn. Although this subject is highly disputed and opposing opinions exist, there seems to be more evidence than not.

Cell phones are also dangerous to use around gasoline vapors. A static field surrounds the phone and user which when connected to the vapors can be its ignition source. Although rare incidents, these static electricity gas pump fires can easily ignite the clothing on the person pumping the fuel. 

Strategy and tactics will differ between a vehicle fire at the gas pumps and a fire involving vehicles inside of a structure at a repair shop. For a vehicle fire at the fuel pumps, priorities are apparatus placement, rescue of any trapped occupants, removing fuel supply (shutoff), and choosing the proper extinguishing agent depending on what class of fire you have. A fire in an auto repair shop will focus on big water fast; From 2 ½ handlines, to master streams and water supply. 

Murphy’s Law: Preparing for these fires by conducting fire preplans and scenario based training will help give you an advantage when they happen on your tour. High risk-low frequency events involving service stations can result in Murphy’s Law considering you will most likely have civilians, flammable liquids, hazmats, explosives, and vehicle traffic all in a confined area. Imagine an engine company staffed with 3 firefighters arriving to a well involved vehicle fire at the fuel pump and the mother screaming her baby is still in the car. Is your crew of 3 capable of approaching a burning vehicle at the fuel pump and removing an infant strapped in a rear child seat? Burning RV’s, food trucks, ambulances and LPG vehicles will present explosion dangers, while tractor trailers and other big rigs burning at the pump will be loaded with diesel fuel. Running these scenarios and visiting the service stations in your response area will have you better prepared in case Murphy’s Law strikes on your watch.

Watch video below of various incidents caught on camera involving fires at service stations and gas pumps. As you will see, these are not rare events, they are common incidents. Also, never underestimate the power of stupidity...

Service Station Fire

Vehicle fire on lift inside repair shop- turned structure fire.

Multiple Vehicles On Fire At Gas Pumps

Three vehicles burning caused by the orange car backing in to the pump. Listen to the explosions coming from the compressed air bag inflators. 

Vehicle Crashes Into Hybrid Vehicle At Pumps

The driver tried to make a yellow light, and when he turned at a high rate of speed, his car understeered and went right into the gas station. He struck a pump, which then hit the Ford Escape Hybrid on the other side, and both burst into flames. Quick acting patrons hit the emergency shut off and called 911 You can hear explosions from airbags, and heated struts launching. 

Tanker Into Gas Station, Fire-Explosion

A tanker truck driver was killed Friday morning after his truck exploded sending flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air causing a 3-alarm fire at the Shell gas station.  This tragic incident occurred during the filming of the popular TV show "Nightwatch" while riding with the New Orleans Fire Dept. Watch the clip and more footage of fire and explosions here

Preparing For Stupid...

The driver is having trouble seeing down into the dark porthole on this 5,000 gallon fuel truck. So in the presence of flammable vapors, the genius decides to flick his bic and take a look inside. Boom!

Static Electricity Ignites Vapors At Pump

The video title is wrong, this was not caused by a cigarette, although it could have been. 

This was caused by static electricity. The guy in the white keeps shuffling his feet, rubbing his cloths, and going back and forth to the vehicle. All his actions are exactly what cause static buildup. 

Combine that with the right mixture of air and vapors accumulating while they have a conversation at the pump and ignition occurs.

Auto Repair Shop Fire

Auto repair shop in State College PA.

Auto Salvage Yard Fire

Fires in junkyards and salvage yards have similar fuel loads as service stations. This salvage yard storage building was loaded with oil, gasoline, acetylene tanks, and car parts.

Fireman Trapped During Gas Station Fire

Massive fire at a gas station in Michigan. The fireman was underneath the parapit facade when the front of the building collapsed on top of him. He was trapped for a few minutes as others came to his rescue. He was up and walking a short time later.

Tanker Crashes, Blows Up Near Gas Station

The driver of a tanker truck was killed during a crash on highway 99 in Atwater California, adjacent to a gas station. Although the accident occurred on the highway, the gas station is an exposure problem. 

Are you prepared for these fires? These are not rare events. For smaller departments, this will require a foam task force or mutual aid. 

Idiot Tries To Burn Spider At Gas Pump

 A man who tried to kill a spider by burning it while pumping gas, started a dangerous fire.