What Can Cause a Car Fire?

Car fires are uncommon, but understanding how they happen may help prevent them from starting.

Two firefighters spray down a car in flamesGetty Images


Every vehicle on the road, whether gas powered, electric, or plug-in hybrid, is susceptible to catching fire. That's because all modern vehicles have electrical systems that can cause a spark and flammable fluids that can leak. In the case of electric cars, fires can reach temperatures of more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

There are some common issues that can cause your car to erupt in flames. Being aware of them could help prevent such a fire from happening to you.

Mechanical or Electrical Defects Can Cause Car Fires

An overheating engine is one of the most common mechanical defects that leads to a car fire. Low coolant levels, oil leaks, or radiator leaks can cause a fire. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends not opening the car's hood if you think there is a fire, as doing so could cause the flames to grow.

Modern cars are full of electrical wires that bring a charge to the engine, exterior and interior lighting, in addition to other vehicle electronics. Over time, these wires can degrade and become prone to cracking, which leads to an increased risk of sparks. That, plus a fuel-system leak, could be a recipe for a fire.

Poor Maintenance and Modifications Can Lead to Fire in a Car

Whenever you take your vehicle in for even routine maintenance, it's worthwhile to have a technician inspect it. Ask them to check all your fluid levels to see if there are leaks. Have them also check your electrical wires and hoses for cracks and degradation. These are things that can start a car fire. Your fuel system could leak from a worn-out hose, for example, meaning a spark could ignite a fire.

Car manufacturers work to prevent their products from going up in flames. Still, the effort they put into carefully fitted, high-quality wiring and flame-resistant materials can be canceled out by a poorly installed aftermarket modification.

Fires can start from exposed wiring or wiring that's not the correct gauge. There's also the risk that aftermarket equipment could lead to a fire. If you're inclined to add features to your car, be sure to seek out high-quality products and brands and have them professionally installed.

Rodents Can Put Your Car at Risk

Thanks to the behavior of rodents, your car might catch on fire no matter how diligent you are about maintenance and inspection. Squirrels and other rodents may seek shelter in engine compartments of cars parked outside, building nests in nooks and crannies to keep safe from winter weather.

If a rodent has moved into your heater vents or exhaust, you may not know it until you smell smoke in the cabin while driving. Be aware of this potential hazard, particularly if you park outside of a garage or near a source of food for rodents, such as trash cans. That said, there are a few strategies you can follow to help prevent rodents from making a home of your vehicle.

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Connor Hoffman
Connor Hoffman is a writer and editor based in Kansas City. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, he was an editor at a national car magazine and worked in communications at a major automaker. He loves off-roading and camping in his 4Runner, golfing (poorly), and shredding on his mountain bike.