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The Investigation of Vehicle Fires

By: Martin Morissette, P.Eng., CFEI, CVFI

On a very cold January day, Mrs. Smiley parked her car and plugged it in for the night. Within the hour, a fire broke out in the car. Strangely, it had just been at the garage for maintenance a few days prior and no problem had been detected.

So why did a fire break out in Mrs. Smiley’s car?

Each day, all kinds of motorized vehicles catch fire for various reasons, such as a mechanical or electrical failure, a collision or a human intervention. All these scenarios must be considered, but is it really possible when the vehicle itself looks like a pile of rubble? In some cases, despite the way the vehicle looks, its examination could reveal clues which can lead to the probable cause of the fire and possible insurance claim.

Photograph 1

Mechanical and electrical failures are probably the most common causes of fire, regardless how old the vehicle is. A fire due to these types of failures can occur at any time, even when the vehicle is not running. As an example, a mechanical breakage can bring on the leakage of a combustible and/or inflammable liquid in the engine compartment (motor oil, gasoline, etc.).

When this liquid comes in contact with a hot surface of the engine, such as the exhaust manifold or the turbocompressor, a fire can break out. So, a breakage which occurs while the car is in use could lead to a fire within minutes once the engine is turned off.

Even if the vehicle is not in use, some electrical circuits remain energized; therefore, a defective or damaged electrical component can generate a short circuit and overheat, which can lead to a fire. Furthermore, adding accessories such as an electric engine heater (“block heater”) can also present a risk of failure due to an improper installation or use. As for Mrs Smiley’s vehicle, it would be wise to pay close attention to the engine heater and its power cable.

Photograph 2 shows the accessories usually installed in cars. Photograph 3 shows the typical connection of an engine heater.

Photograph 2
Photograph 3

A fire due to a human intervention, either accidental or intentional, must always be considered as a possible scenario. Indeed, a faulty repair can be the cause of the fire. Occasionally, an act of vandalism brought on by a multitude of motives such as rampage, intimidation and destruction of evidence (from another crime) can be a cause of fire in a vehicle. Lastly, the attempt to fraudulently claim from an insurer also remains among the situations frequently encountered.

The examination of such a vehicle by a mechanical engineer specialized in this field (CVFI – Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator) can highlight the specific characteristics of the failure mode which led to the ignition of the fire; sometimes even when the vehicle has been severely damaged. This process applies to all types of vehicles: agricultural and forest machinery and construction. Occasionally, the analysis can be easier to carry out due to known recalls on some vehicles for problems which can led to a fire.

The examination of the vehicle could therefore allow the expert to establish a link between the fire and these recalls in order to set the recovery process in motion.

It is possible to research recalls on Transports Canada’s website by using the link below:

CVFI Experts Team, Origin Forensic Science

Christian Giguère - Quebec City Office
René Chamberland - Quebec City Office
Martin Morissette - Montreal Office
Pierre Massicotte, consultant

Pierre Massicotte, a veteran Engineer with over 50 years of practice, in the last 38 years he has exclusively dedicated himself to technical investigations.

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