Vehicle Fires

By Brian Butler

Modern day vehicle fires are becoming far more dangerous, requiring a thorough size up and cautious approach. Firefighters are currently faced with far more hazards than the old conventional vehicle fires of the past. Some additional concerns range from exploding compressed gas canisters, struts, plastic gas tanks, multiple airbags and burning magnesium to numerous batteries, energy absorbing bumpers, alternative fuels (CNG, LPG, Hydrogen, Hybrid) and hydrocarbon plastics that produce more heat and toxic smoke. There's a big difference between the old conventional car fires of the 70', 80's and 90's, compared to the modern day vehicle fire. 

Imagine having two car fires within one month of each other where the vehicles were 34 years apart. If you've been around long enough or experienced old vs new already, you'll definitely recognize the differences.

In 2016 we had a late model SUV fully involved in an alley with several airbag explosions, burning magnesium, a strut launch off the read hatchback, and a small running fuel fire. A few weeks later we had a 1982 Ford Granada burning on the side of the PA turnpike. The old Ford was a simple fire, just cloth interior and dash area burning in a metal shell. Keep in mind this was burning for over 20 minutes before water was applied to it. It was extinguished with very little water and no airbag, magnesium or strut dangers present.

We must remember that whether a vehicle is old or new, the presence of explosive atmospheres in certain vehicles will not discriminate. Food trucks, RV's, retrofitted sanitation trucks and ambulances are dangerous when involved in fire. In addition to your typical vehicle fire hazards, add the possibility of oxygen, propane, or CNG tanks exploding. Do not get complacent by having the "it's just another car fire" attitude. These types of vehicles in addition to heavy vehicles are dangerous moving machinery that I like to call "target hazard" vehicles. 

We offer a great course on sizing up various types of passenger occupied "transportation" machinery. Dangerous moving machinery requires a thorough size up before any suppression or extrication begins. New firefighters NEED this course! Big trucks, heavy equipment transport, hazardous material delivery trucks, rolling compactors and other dangerous machinery can add stabilization problems, explosive atmospheres, and deliver more BTU's than the single engine company can handle. 

Click here for "Elevators, Trains, and Automobiles" Sizing Up Passenger Occupied Transportation Machinery> 

When dispatched for a vehicle fire, ask yourself the following:

*What is burning? (car, SUV, bobtail, pickup, ambulance, delivery, RV, etc..)

*Where is it burning? (engine compartment, trunk, trailer, bed etc..)

*What it's possibly carrying? (occupants, gas, propane, oxygen, fireworks, CNG etc..) 

*What happens to whatever it's carrying when exposed to heat? (airbags, struts, tanks,magnesium, etc..)   

*Do I need foam? (Hydrocarbon, AR-AFFF 3-6%, involving gas station, diesel truck etc..)

Your simple vehicle fire can turn into a far more serious incident. During a fire with an occupant trapped inside, a proactive fireman/officer will have his seat belt cutter, hole punch, eye protection, the irons, and method of extinguishment ready before he even steps out of the truck to do his rescue profile. A proactive pump operator will make sure proper apparatus placement is accomplished.

Starting in 2018, most vehicles will be manufactured with passenger side laminated glass, rendering the halligan strike and hole punch useless. The rear windows may also have laminated glass. This will be a major problem if a rapid rescue has to be performed. Police officers and firefighters have saved many people trapped in burning cars by taking out tempered glass windows with striking tools, Mag lights, batons, and pulling people out through the window. That will not work anymore. 

This will also become an issue for vehicles under water. 

ALL ENGINE COMPANIES that do NOT have the Glas-master or Rhyno cutting tool should push for them. During vehicle fires these windows will not fail like tempered glass and a cutting tool may be needed to make a rapid rescue or to make room for a hose stream into the vehicle. Another method is to use the blade of the axe or fork of the halligan to chop the window (do not strike the occupant!) and flap it down. Use your next vehicle fire to practice cutting, chopping, sawing these laminated windows. 

Be sure to use a mask filter to prevent inhaling glass particles. For real time incidents, pull your Nomex hood up over your mouth and nose and wear safety glasses for protection. 

Apparatus Placement: Where you decide to park is EXTREMELY important when positioning for pump operations during a vehicle fire. Drivers who get complacent are taking unnecessary risks. Attempt to park where you can divert or block traffic, making sure you're parked uphill/upwind from the fire. Take the extra five seconds to get it right before you park, put your new $800,000 apparatus in pump gear, and leave the cab. Keep apparatus off train tracks, blind spots on highways, and inclines on exit ramps. 

They are now manufacturing plastic gas tanks, and they melt easily during fire causing running fuel fires. Don't be that pump operator at the bottom of the hill when that "oh shit" moment happens. 

PROTECT YOUR RIG: A good proactive driver knows If there's even a slight chance of a running fuel fire coming towards the apparatus,  to grab speedy dry, a dry chem, or even a shovel AHEAD OF TIME. Use these to dike, divert, or extinguish potential running fuel fires if possible. It only takes a few seconds after the line is charged to chock the wheels of a burning vehicle or grab the speedy dry... just in case.


Stabilize: Chock the vehicle if on a ramp or hill. You don't want THIS to happen while the entire hood is filming you on their cell phones. Don't have chocks on the engine? Just click here for creative chocking


Magnesium & Airbag Explosions

The officers of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department thought that the video of this indecent could be used particularly well for training purposes.  The original video has been edited to include basic information about car fires and possible dangers associated with them.  


Magnesium: Magnesium fires can reach temperatures over 4000°F producing a bright blinding flash and even penetrating bunker gear. When water is applied to burning magnesium, especially a fog pattern, the reaction is a bright flare up (magnesium oxide) and volatile (hydrogen) explosion. Just staring at magnesium fires long enough can cause blindness, long term migraine headaches, concussions and pain similar to 'welders' flash.​  Always wear your face piece at every vehicle fire.

I will admit that in the 90's and even up to several years ago, I was not a fan of wearing a facepiece when on the nozzle at your typical conventional vehicle fire. Nowadays with all of the explosive dangers, it's not worth the risk of death or injury to the face. Wear your facepiece. The officer is usually behind the nozzlemen, a far more safer position, and may choose not to wear it depending on the circumstances.

For vehicle fires involving magnesium,  approach from the side or a 45° angle using a straight stream from a distance sweeping under the vehicle on approach, then cool the bumper strut area second. Let the magnesium burn off while extinguishing the rest of the vehicle first. Most of the magnesium will be in the steering column area, transfer case and engine block. Familiarity with certain types of vehicles will help you when facing fires involving magnesium. Using a class D (or ABC) fire extinguisher to smother some of the burning magnesium may be helpful, especially in the steering column, dash,  floor board, transfer case area. That, combined with a good 180 GPM solid stream will USUALLY handle burning magnesium in a vehicle. Sometimes you will discover an expensive Class D extinguisher will be useless and letting magnesium burn longer is a better option than running out of tank water, calling another engine company, or connecting to a hydrant. If using the preferred fog nozzle and you encounter magnesium, use a narrow pattern or use a 'breakaway' nozzle for a vehicle fire with magnesium. Extinguish the rest of the vehicle letting the magnesium burn. Shut down the line and remove the fog and then apply solid stream to magnesium. 

From feedback and experience, the methods out there range from purple K and met-L-X, to speedy dry and even dry cement. I once had a late model Jeep Cherokee burning on the PA Turnpike with a lot of magnesium burning. We used 750 gallons of water, two ABC and one class D extinguisher. After all that, it barely went out.

WARNING: Do not lean into the car with the line to extinguish fire. This old practice is dangerous because of magnesium and the airbag locations. Whether in the steering wheel, passenger dash, the A, B, C posts, or knee airbags, they will blow up in your face and only end your career if you're lucky.

AIRBAGS: Airbag gas inflators can explode when exposed to heat from vehicle fires causing serious injury to unsuspecting firefighters reaching inside the vehicle to perform a rescue or operating a handline. It's important that ALL firemen, especially nozzlemen become familiar with the locations where these airbag inflators will be installed as there can be as many as 12 airbags in a vehicle. Watch your head when advancing line into vehicle. 

Dangerous Airbag Explosion


Food Trucks, Propane


Food trucks carry propane. During a fire, these tanks cab BLEVE. During a leak, a food truck has many ignition sources. In addition, grease, cooking oil, and other combustibles on-board will intensify the fire. 



What are the chances? This strut went right through bunker gear.

Hatchback Struts


When working near hoods and hatchbacks, be cognizant of these struts.

Airbag Inflators


Airbags and Airbag Inflators Involved in Fire, Click Here

Airbag Inflator Locations


Up to 12 airbags may be located in the modern vehicle, especially SUV's, minivans, and other third seat vehicles. Common locations are side curtains, knee bags, rollover, driver and passenger airbags.

Airbag Inflator C-Post


Do not place any part of your body in a burning vehicle when extinguishing fire. Even after extinguishment, these inflators can still be heated enough to explode. 




A large recreational vehicle (RV) is a furnished structure on wheels. Expect thick black toxic smoke, high intense heat, and explosive potential. Be cognizant of propane tanks and be sure to chock these vehicles for stabilization. 

RV Campers


RV campers in driveways are also hazardous. When parked in residential driveways, exposure to the structure are a major concern. Cool any propane tanks from a safe distance on approach with the hose stream, and observe any relief valve activation. 

Propane Tanks


Some propane tanks are not visible from the outside. This location may actually be a safe spot when it comes to fire exposure on the tanks. But be aware that fire underneath exposing the tanks can have deadly explosive results. Use cauiton with RV's!



A fully involved fire involving a truck used to pull this RV camper may expose the propane tanks. This must be examined during size up. The sight of an RV should immediately trigger "propane" for firefighters. Cool the tanks, monitor relief valves. 



Forklifts using propane can be dangerous when exposed to fire. Watch this VIDEO, witness the explosion following the activation of a release valve. 

How many warehouses in your district? Think this can't happen? Watch more explosions involving forklifts here, including a fatality

Food Trucks


When arriving to a burning food truck, use caution on approach. Natural gas, propane and cooking oil are dangers present when these trucks are well involved. Even during gas leaks, these trucks have several ignition sources that have ignited deadly explosions. Philadelphia Food Truck Fatal VIDEO Portland Food Cart Explosion VIDEO Fresno Food Truck Explosion VIDEO



CNG bus at DFW airport.



This burning bus had a malfunctioning relief valve.

On-Board Suppression


This CNG bus has a shutoff on the dash panel.

Delivery Trucks


Trucks with hazardous materials will have ID placards. Use the ERG to identify and stay uphill, upwind, and contact proper additional resources.



Most LPG and CNG vehicles will have badging on the rear of the vehicle.

Power Lines


Downed power lines with high winds ignited these vehicle fires, not radiant heat from the nearby homes burning.

Additional Dangers

Gas Pumps Rescue


Rescue occupants under the protection of a hoseline, secure the shutoff.

Confined Space


Parking Garages

Gas Stations Class B


Use dry chem extinguishers and foam for class B fires. Fog patterns can be used to keep exposures and vapors in check, or make a rescue. Be cognizant of pooling gasoline at your feet!

Ambulance Oxygen Tanks


Trenton NJ: This fire occurred behind the fire station at relief time. In the video, as predicted, oxygen tanks exposed to heat exploded.  

Tractor Trailer Contents


Trenton NJ: This tractor trailer fire occurred during rush hour in high winds on the peak of an elevated ramp. We positioned uphill, and approx 100' away. This truck needed to be stabilized with a chock. Make sure debris aren't being blasted over the barrier onto the highway below with moving traffic.



Bobtail Diesel Fire


King of Prussia PA: This bobtail fire with running fuel fire ignited a nearby compactor, and was taken care of with foam application. When we arrived, this truck was fully involved with a running fuel fire headed towards a building.

Tractor Trailers

When you arrive on the scene of a tractor trailer fire well involved, you should immediately request police for traffic control and upgrade the assignment. Remember the rescue of trapped occupants is your top priority. Check for placards on the trailer or ask the driver what the truck is carrying. Apparatus placement is extremely important considering these fires are on highways/main roads with heavy traffic. Park uphill, upwind and block or divert traffic if possible. Make sure you stabilize the tractor trailer if it can safely be done by simply chocking the wheels. 

Be prepared for Class B fires (gasoline or diesel) with tractor trailers. 

REMEMBER: In addition to Class B fires and the contents of the trailer, we must be STILL be cognizant of the conventional vehicle fire hazards like exploding tires, airbag inflators, compressed gas bumper struts and magnesium,

Be careful when opening the back of trailers! Use the length of the pike pole when pulling doors open and where PPE-especially the face piece and helmet. 

 BE CAREFUL when opening the back doors of a trailer. Use the reach of a pike pole and wear your PPE/SCBA/face piece.  

A New Jersey Fireman was critically injured when opening the back door of this tractor trailer to extinguish a fire in the trailer compartment carrying oranges. 

Find out more

Apparatus Placement

Apparatus placement is EXTREMELY important during a vehicle fire. Drivers who get complacent are taking unnecessary risks. Try to position the apparatus where you can divert or stop traffic, looking out for the safety of firefighters exiting the fire truck. If possible, park uphill/upwind, being cognizant of running fuel fires. Take the extra few seconds to get it right before you put your new $800,000 apparatus in pump gear and leave the cab. Keep it off train tracks, blind spots on highways, and exit ramps. 

Be sure to quickly chock the vehicle if on a ramp or hill. 

Click here to see a school bus on fire start rolling toward a pumper.

They are now manufacturing plastic gas tanks, and they melt easily during fire causing running fuel fires. Don't be that pump operator at the bottom of the hill when that "oh shit" moment happens. 

PROTECT YOUR RIG: A good proactive driver knows If there's even a slight chance of a running fuel fire coming towards the apparatus, to grab speedy dry AHEAD OF TIME and dike or divert any running fuel fires if possible. It only takes a few seconds after the line is charged to chock the wheels of a burning vehicle, grab the speedy dry, and a dry chem extinguisher... just in case! 



Click here for video

CNG Sanitation

CNG Tank Locations


Look for the badging-signage (CNG) on sanitation vehicles, and the protective housing for the CNG tanks. Usually, they are located on the roof of the cab, hopper, or behind the cab between the hopper.

Incident NJ


This truck fire resulted in a tank exploding and rocketing shrapnel through a home. Luckily, no one was injured. To see the video, click here. More photos here. See news report with video here.



Look for the "CNG" logo on the sides og the truck, and the rear. There's a fire extinguisher on the truck to handle small class B fires.

CNG Sanitation Truck Explosion




Remains of CNG tank


CNG Explosion, Hamilton NJ

CNG Sanitation Trucks

We're starting to see an increase in the number of CNG sanitation vehicles on the road. These trucks carry several 100 pound carbon fiber cylinders. They are usually located in a protective housing on the top of the container, the roof, or behind the cab. Each cylinder has a PRV (Pressure Relief Valve) built into the tank valve. These valves are set to activate during fire/heat exposure. Manual shutoffs (pictured above) are located on the tanks and emergency shutoffs are located on the side of the cab or inside the truck. Methane detection systems are in most of these vehicles to detect a release. 



For propane emergencies involving fires and releases, click here.

Tactics: When dispatched for a sanitation or recycling truck fire, assume it's going to be a CNG vehicle. On approach, carefully observe fire conditions and look for CNG indicators-badging, or an activated relief valve. The company officer must then account for the driver, who can be helpful in providing additional information. After accounting for occupants of the vehicle, determine whether to make a quick knock down of the contents inside of the container (or engine compartment), cool the exposed tanks from a safe distance, or use the line to do both. This will require a savvy nozzleman who understands what he's dealing with. These CNG vehicle fires require additional engines and manpower to assist with extinguishment, exposure issues, and evacuation duties. Water supply may be needed to cool tanks from a distance, as tank water will only last a few minutes. Assigning an engine for fire attack, and another for cooling tanks is another option depending on the location and extent of the fire. Most of the contents burning in these containers involve trash, recyclables. 

If a garbage trucks trash contents catch fire, the driver is supposed to dump the load immediately, but if it's not safe to do so (wires, traffic, park, school) or the driver doesn't complete the dump, the cylinders will most likely be in jeapordy of fire exposure. If the driver doesn't secure the shutoff valve and the truck is heavily involved, responding firefighters will be arriving to a potentially explosive, dangerous situation.

Click here for VIDEO of garbage dump during fire.

There's always a risk when relying on the PRD's on the cylinders exposed to fire, as some have failed in the past with catastrophic results. PRD's failing are rare events, but they do happen. When arriving on scene to a CNG truck fire, remember how important apparatus placement is. After identifying the truck as a CNG vehicle, try to locate (or rescue) the driver to confirm if the shut off valve has been secured. CNG truck explosions do happen, so firemen must remain extremely cautious when approaching for extinguishment, and full PPE must be worn. Locate the CNG cylinders on the roof or side storage compartment and cool them with water on approach if possible, before extinguishing trash from a safe distance. Are the PRD's activated? Are the cylinders threatened? Is it a class A fire with potential for an explosion? If the cylinders aren't threatened, fight it like a conventional truck fire.

Find the CNG transit and sanitation powered vehicles in your response area and prepare to handle these incidents before they happen.  Natural Gas Vehicle Safety  


INCIDENT: A Florida Transit system passenger bus was torched when a fire originating in the engine compartment spread from the natural gas feeding the fire. The safety PRD activated prematurely, instead of when reaching its dangerous pressure levels. Some newer buses now have fire protection systems the driver can activate in case of fire. In this fire the driver attempted to use a fire extinguisher, which proved to be no match for this gas fed fire. One out of every five buses produced in the U.S. are CNG powered.

INCIDENT: Shortly after conducting a fire preplan on CNG sanitation trucks located in our district, a truck from the same fleet burned in the neighboring town causing an explosion. The fire started in the battery compartment. By the time fire crews had arrived, the fire had spread beneath one of the truck’s CNG fuel tanks. As the fire intensified, the tank’s pressure relief device activated, venting fuel into the air. The fuel ignited shortly thereafter, erupting in a fireball and launching the CNG tank, damaging homes nearby. No firefighters were hurt. Do NOT sleep on these fires just because a relief valve is activated. Explosion can still occur! Remember, there can be several tanks in one housing with only one PRV activated. 

See VIDEO of the initial fire with explosion. Click here for part 2 of the VIDEO and witness the PRD activation, fire in the cab, and some entertaining commentary.

More CNG Sanitation Truck Explosions

CNG PRV (Pressure Relief Valve)

PRD working during this CNG bus fire.

CNG Explosion, Exposure To Home

Recycling trucks catches fire, resulting in explosion that torched a home in Chesapeake Va.

Propane Tank In Truck Bed, Exposure To Building

At a McDonald's in Coachella (California), a truck with propane tanks in the bed catch on fire and end with an explosion. Luckily, everyone made it out of the truck in time, but experienced second degree burns. Use caution on approach and locate occupants for information! 

Ambulance With Oxygen Tanks

Ambulances, fire apparatus, and paramedic units carry oxygen tanks which will explode during fire. Use caution, but do not solely focus so much on the oxygen tanks and forget that your typical vehicle fire hazards (airbags, struts) are still present. 

Running Fuel Fire

From heart attack, to motorcycle crash, to running fuel fire on a steep hill with exposure issues. 

Vehicle Fire Inside A Building

Vehicle burns inside of a state building in downtown Trenton NJ after crashing through the window.

Part 2

In part 2 of vehicle fires, we will cover vehicle fires with exposures from structures, loading docks, filling/charging stations, solar panels, and fires involving tractor trailers, bobtails, delivery trucks, and electric cars. Difficult to access fires in tunnels, underground parking, and bridges. 

Find out more