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Vehicle Fire Investigations - Burning More Than Just Rubber


The design of modern motor vehicles is rapidly changing and the costs of them are increasing significantly.  As a result, often the size of a loss involving a motor vehicle fire can be substantial and that leads to the economic decision to investigate a fire for possible avenues of subrogation.

As a consequence, when a vehicle has caught fire our clients generally want to know two things: where did the fire start and how did it start? Understanding the answer to the first question can give insight into the answer to the second. Without knowing the origin of the fire a probable cause cannot be determined. In a structural fire, the area of origin is usually characterized by the most intense burning. Once an investigator has found that area, then a probable cause can begin to be deduced. Due to the nature of how vehicle fires develop and spread, typical structural fire clues are not as applicable to a vehicle fire, so a different approach must be taken.

While vehicle fire investigation uses many of the same investigative principles as structure fire investigation, there are several factors that make vehicle fires a specialized form of investigation:

  1. Vehicle fires develop in confined spaces and spread in unique patterns making them more difficult to analyze than structure fires.
  2. Compact structures, such as vehicles, burn quickly and completely and are extremely difficult to investigate because the fire itself can destroy potential evidence.
  3. The significant electrical wiring system and complex mechanical systems in vehicles require specialized knowledge of how these systems work together.
  4. There are numerous sources of combustion contained within a vehicle, so vehicle fire investigators must be able to distinguish between damage caused by primary and secondary causes (ie. vehicle parts/components that ignited subsequent to the initial fire)
  5. There are various non-intentional contributing factors, such as damage from impact, defective parts, and system failures.

Vehicle fire investigation is a specialized area of fire investigation that requires a solid understanding of the nature of fire dynamics within tight enclosures. Investigators also need to possess knowledge of the mechanical and operational characteristics of motor vehicles. Without a comprehensive background in both fields, fire investigators who are untrained in the special circumstances surrounding vehicle fires can sometimes mistakenly misidentify the source of a fire.


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